Monday, December 28, 2009

The Atonement Defined I: Justification

It is common to hear religious people marvel at the "incomprehensible" nature of the atonement and suffering of Christ.  This can be attributed to many true statements made by the general authorities along those lines:

"How One could bear the sins for all is beyond the comprehension of mortal man" (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, (2014), 89–101).

"In some incredible way that none of us can fully comprehend, the Savior took upon Himself the sins of the world" (M. Russell Ballard, "The Atonement and the Value of One Soul," Ensign, May 2004).

"We can’t fully understand how Jesus suffered for our sins" (

“While we do not fully understand how the Atonement of Christ was made, we can experience 'the peace of God, which passeth all understanding.'” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Touch of the Master’s Hand,” Ensign, May 2001,

However, while there are clearly aspects of the atonement which defy mortal understanding, or which have not yet been revealed to us, there is much that has been taught in the scriptures and by latter-day prophets concerning the atonement which is plain and easy to understand.  Furthermore, the fact that there are are some incomprehensible aspects of the atonement is not an excuse for members of the church to remain ignorant of the workings of the atonement when there is so much we do (or can) understand if we will only apply ourselves to study and reflection.

To fail to grasp the plain and simple truths to which we, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have been granted unprecedented access, is to waste one of the most precious gifts which has been given to man.  Moreover, if we fail to fully comprehend what is comprehensible about the atonement, we may keep ourselves from fully enjoying the blessings and the peace which Christ offers to each one of us.  In fact, I daresay that much of the personal suffering and anxiety among the individual members of the church can be traced back to an imperfect (or downright incomplete) understanding of the blessings and power of the atonement.  Worse, as a  missionary church, we try to communicate to others the blessings of a greater light and knowledge regarding the gospel which Christ taught, and which is supposed to bring us closer to Him; however, if we ourselves do not have a correct understanding of Christ's atoning sacrifice and its meaning in our own lives, then how can we expect to be able to convert others to the truth?  How can we expect others to represent our beliefs correctly if we ourselves do not possess a correct understanding of the very foundation of our faith?

"We need to understand the Atonement more fully than we do, both because outsiders may misperceive our doctrine and because we may view the Atonement too narrowly in our own lives. For example, Newsweek magazine has stated: “Unlike orthodox Christians, Mormons believe that men are born free of sin and earn their way to godhood by the proper exercise of free will, rather than through the grace of Jesus Christ. Thus Jesus’ suffering and death in the Mormon view … do not atone for the sins of others.” (Newsweek, 1 Sept. 1980, p. 68.)

It disturbs me that Newsweek would miss the point of our core doctrine, even though the article purported not to summarize our theology but to report what Latter-day Saints actually believe. It is unfortunate when we convey incorrect ideas to others; but it is worse when we, by our limited doctrinal understanding, deny ourselves the reassurance and guidance we may desperately need at pivotal moments in our lives" (Bruce C. Hafen, "Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ," Ensign, May 1990,

To the end that we might more fully understand the power and blessings (and the basic workings) of the atonement, I have begun a series in which I will define certain basic terms which are commonly used in scripture to describe certain aspects of the atonement and how or why it was made.  The terms include words and phrases such as, justification, sanctification, and propitiation.  It is my hope that a more complete understanding of the terms used in the scriptures to communicate the power and meaning of the atonement will provide a jumping off point whereby those who read these articles might enabled to make discoveries and gain insights of their own as they study the scriptures to learn more about the atonement.  Hopefully, they might be taught more fully by the Holy Ghost as they revisit the scriptures with new eyes, and with the aid of an increased understanding.

Justification: Being accounted righteous by God through faith in Him. This is essentially a purely legal term that does not in fact deal with one’s inner nature in any way. It is the declaration by God that
all of the requirements of the Law are satisfied concerning the one who is justified. It is meant to denote a change in status that signifies that one has been judged righteous (or guiltless) by God and deemed worthy by our Father to return to a proper relationship with Him. This kind of reconciliation with our Heavenly Father is impossible without the removal of the obstacle created by our past sins, which causes us to be estranged from our Father in Heaven.

The removal of the obstacle of sin in general (along with death) that came as a result of the fall and our own transgressions is one of the principle objectives of the atonement of Jesus Christ (see Romans 5:11-19). Justification is essentially the moment or event in time in which one is transitioned from “sinner” to “righteous” (or more to the point, from “condemned” to “guiltless”) if in name only. Justification happens externally, and is determined entirely by God who acts as judge.

Justification comes to us through the merits of the Savior, and not through any merit of our own. Justification (as opposed to the process of sanctification) does not actually entail a change in one’s nature or a cleansing of one’s soul from sin per se, rather it describes the process whereby we are freed from the penalty attached to sin and granted redemption from the effects of a broken law.  This is only possible because Christ has taken upon him the sins and transgressions of mankind, and He has extended the merits of His righteousness to cover those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit, through faith and repentance and adherence to His gospel.

2 Nephi 2:6-8 Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered. Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.

Our new status as justified, and “righteous” (or guiltless) before God is not based our own righteousness or merits, but is in fact based upon the righteousness and obedience of the Savior himself (see Romans 5:19), and it is imputed to us upon our truly accepting him and his sacrifice for us (along with all which that entails). We, in effect, “borrow” The Savior’s righteousness so that we might stand blameless before God, and enjoy the fruits of total obedience to the Law, to which only Christ is legally entitled to enjoy.

1 John 3: 4-6  Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.  And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.

Romans 3:23-26  For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

All men have sinned and therefore all men have transgressed the law in some way.  No matter how minor our transgression may seem, if we have broken the Law in any aspect we are guilty of the whole of it.

James 2:10  For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

By definition, if we have broken the law in any way, we can no longer be considered "just," in that to be just is to be one who has perfectly kept the whole law.  As all men have failed in this regard, the only one who is perfectly just is Christ.  Only Christ has been justified through the keeping of the whole law, therefore only Christ can be considered truly righteous in the legal sense.  Furthermore, the demands of the law, and of justice, require that a price be paid, and a recompense made for any transgression of the law.  Given that we are all already mired in eternal debt under the law (because of our trangression of the law), no man has the ability to pay this price.

Psalms 49:6-9 They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him: (For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever:) That he should still live for ever, and not see corruption.

Alma 34:11-12 Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another.  Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother?  I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

"No mortal being had the power or capability to redeem all other mortals from their lost and fallen condition, nor could any other voluntarily forfeit his life and thereby bring to pass a universal resurrection for all other mortals" (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, (2014), 89–101).

Fortunately for us, Christ has elected of His own free will to extend the merits of His righteousness to answer the ends of the law, and the requirements of justice, on our behalf.  Note, however, that Christ can "declare His righteousness for the remission for [our] sins that are past," only through the forbearance of God.  Forbearance, as Paul uses it here, is a legal term, and it is an important term to understand when considering the question of justification, which deals largely with our legal relationship to God.  Accordingly, I find this definition (from a law textbook) to be particularly informative:

"Forbearance: The act of refraining from an action that one has the legal right to undertake."
(Jentz G., Miller R., (2008.)  Business Law: The Essentials, Eighth edition, 516-517. South-Western Cengage Learning.)

Under the law, God is the injured party, in that we have each transgressed against Him through sin.  As such, He has the legal right to obtain justice from each one of us through the punishment attached to the law.  However, out of love and mercy toward us, God chooses to forebear.  Instead of exacting a price from each of us which we could never possibly hope to pay, God elects to allow Christ to pay the price (and to suffer the punishment) instead, and on our behalf, thereby satisfying justice, and redressing the injury caused to God by our transgressions.

However, Christ did not pay the price for our sins so that we could complacently continue in sin, and there have been conditions attached to the forbearance of God, and to Christ's atoning gift.

Helaman 5:10-11  And remember also the words which Amulek spake unto Zeezrom, in the city of Ammonihah; for he said unto him that the Lord surely should come to redeem his people, but that he should not come to redeem them in their sins, but to redeem them from their sins.  And he hath power given unto him from the Father to redeem them from their sins because of repentance; therefore he hath sent his angels to declare the tidings of the conditions of repentance, which bringeth unto the power of the Redeemer, unto the salvation of their souls.

Basically, justification represents a pardon of all of one’s past sins, but does not provide us an alibi whereby we may sin with impunity. As Amulek taught, Christ did not come to redeem us in our sins, but instead He has graciously offered to redeem us from our sins.  As Lehi taught His son Jacob, Christ chooses to extend the merits of His righteousness to cover only those who exercise faith in Him unto repentance, with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.

"Considering all that [Jesus Christ] has done and is doing for us, there is something that we might give Him in return.

Christ’s great gift to us was His life and sacrifice. Should that not then be our small gift to Him—our lives and sacrifices, not only now but in the future?" (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, (2014), 89–101).

It is important to note that a person cannot be justified against their will, as justification comes as the result of certain choices and actions on our part. Christ has no power to redeem us if we do not choose, of our own free will, to repent of our sins and come to Him.  One is justified by faith in God, an essential component of which is good works, which includes repenting of our sins and living the principles of the gospel to the very best of our ability.  While we are not saved by the deeds of our own righteousness, they are still required if we wish to gain access to the merits, mercy, grace, and righteousness of the holy Messiah Jesus Christ, and we cannot be saved without them.  Accordingly, as it is stated in to Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary, “Justification is not the forgiveness of a man without righteousness, but a declaration that he possesses a righteousness which perfectly and for ever satisfies the law, namely, Christ's righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 4:6-8).”

If we choose not to repent of our sins and follow Christ in righteousness, we are left on our own to answer the demands of justice and to attempt to make recompense for our transgression of the law.  Unfortunately, there is nothing we own which is equal to the demands of the broken law, therefore we do not have the ability to pay for our own sins.  We are mortal and imperfect, therefore even our lives are insufficient to pay the price for a broken eternal law.

Alma 34:14-18  And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.  And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.  And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.  Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you;  Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save.

Christ suffered and died for each one of us so that we might be spared from the terrible suffering incidental to the punishment attached to violation of the law, and from the impossible burden of paying for our own sins, and all He asks is that we choose to repent and come to Him, of our own free will.

D&C 19:15-20  Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.  For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.  Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit.

How grateful I am that Christ chose to extend His merits, mercy, and grace to me.  I marvel at the love which He must have for each one of us, that would induce Him to suffer so terribly for the sins of others, when He himself was innocent. Each of us should reflect often on the debt which we owe the Savior, and we must act on the miraculous gift of repentance, which allows us to return to Him and to experience the peace and joy and power of His redemption.

Click HERE to learn about Sanctification, how it relates to Justification, and the part it plays in the atonement of Jesus Christ.


1. a reason, fact, circumstance, or explanation that justifies or defends: His insulting you was ample justification for you to leave the party.
2. an act of justifying: The painter's justification of his failure to finish on time didn't impress me.
3. the state of being justified.
4. Also called justification by faith. Theology. the act of God whereby humankind is made or accounted just, or free from guilt or penalty of sin.
5. Printing. the spacing of words and letters within a line of type so that all full lines in a column have even margins both on the left and on the right.

Legal Dictionary

Main Entry: jus·ti·fi·ca·tion
Pronunciation: "j&s-t&-f&-'kA-sh&n
Function: noun
1 : the act or an instance of justifying
2 : something that justifies; specifically : a legally sufficient reason or cause (as self-defense) for an act that would otherwise be criminal or tortuous
3 : the affirmative defense of having a legally sufficient justification —compare EXCUSE
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law, © 1996 Merriam-Webster, Inc.

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