Posted by: isaiahsfan | January 11, 2009

D&C Lesson #2–The Atonement as the Root of Christian Doctrine

Those of you who got your little class member study guide in Sunday School last week may have been interested to see that the lessons are arranged thematically this year.  We will be studying principles and themes and using the D&C to develop these themes.  I am interested to see how this method will work in our ward.  I am hoping that we will be able to explore the doctrines of the gospel thoroughly while still maintaining an emphasis on Church history.

Lesson #2 may be a little bit difficult for most teachers to present without being extremely general.  The topic of Jesus Christ as Savior is so broad and important that it will be hard to cover.  The teacher’s manual focuses on the Atonement, which is still huge and deep and broad!  The first place my mind went when I read the lesson was to Atonement Theory.  The Christian movements have been trying to explain the atonement for centuries, and at this point in time there are many basic theories explaining how the atonement works.  I want to quickly summarize the dominant ones here just so we can see how the D&C can clarify and make sense of the whole debate.  Because I want to be brief, what follows is a MAJOR simplification of the theories:

Satisfaction Theory — Human sin dishonors God. A price must be paid to satisfy God and restore his honor. The only penalty suitable to God was a divine sacrifice–Christ’s obedience when he willingly suffered torture and death at his crucifixion. By allowing himself to be ritually sacrificed, Jesus’ death replicated in many ways the ritual sacrifice of animals were slaughtered in the Temple. (fits with Roman Catholic beliefs)

Christus Victor Theory–Jesus voluntarily allowed himself to be executed. This defeated the power of evil and released humanity from its sin. The atonement is seen as a victory which makes possible a rescue or liberation of humanity from the slavery of sin.

Ransom Theory – Because of Adam and Eve’s sin and its effect on all mankind, Satan acquired dominion over the human race. In order to free people from the grip of Satan, God agreed to arrange the death of Jesus, his son, as a ransom price to be paid to the devil. This would compensate for sin and release humanity from Satan’s grasp. People can then be reconciled with God if they trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior. (Eastern Orthodox churches subscribe to this theory)

Acceptance Theory–God could have decided of his own free will to save humanity through the work, and perhaps the death, of an angel, of Adam, of any other human being, or even an animal. But he decided, for his own reasons, to achieve atonement through the torture-death of his son, Yeshua. (not generally taught by Christian groups)

Moral Theory–Jesus Christ’s life and death is primarily a moral example to humanity. It can inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God. (commonly accepted by Liberal Christians & post Christians)

Penal-Substitution Theory–Sin incurs a debt to God which requires repayment. The punishment for sin must involve the shedding of blood. Jesus Christ’s obedience to God by living a sinless life, and by voluntarily dying on the cross made it possible for him to vicariously pay the debt in behalf of those who accept him as their Savior. (Conservative & some Mainline Protestants)

We can boil this down even further and view atonement theories this way: (the theories may have one or more elements of the following)

* Atonement as sacrifice
* Atonement as victory
* Atonement as forgiveness
* Atonement as  moral example
* Atonement as payment

I think that many members in the Church today have a penal-substitution, or payment view of the atonement, which is heavily influenced by Boyd K. Packer’s parable and our desire for acceptance from mainstream Christianity.  A few LDS theologians have done some work on developing a uniquely Mormon atonement theory which addresses the problems we have in entertaining any of  the prevailing schools of thought.  One of these is Blake Ostler’s “Compassion theory.”  Another is Jacob Morgan’s “Divine Infusion Theory.”  Morgan’s paper is a good read if you want to know why the theories I have listed above all have problems!   Another interesting place to read about a the uniquely Mormon take of the Atonement is the MormonWiki entry.  It is instructive to read the suggested verses in the SS lesson which emphasize the position of Christ as “advocate.” These are found in 29:1-5, 45:3-5, and 110:4-5. Also important is 18:10-11 which tells us that the purpose of Christ’s suffering was so all men would repent and come to him.

How has your reading in the D&C or Book of Mormon this week helped you come to a better understanding of how the atonement works?  Let’s include in our discussion a consideration of Section 19.



  1. I haven’t read through all of the links you posted but reading the different versions, I am impressed at how many of them I think are part and parcel of the atonement. I suppose that’s one reason I like the LDS version/understanding so much. In my understanding, Jesus’ atonement encompassed everything from the Garden to the cross and in so doing not only makes recompense for my sins (penal substitution theory?) but also makes up for the negative effects of mortality and the effects of my sins upon myself and others (ransom theory?).

    I’m not wholly certain what the compassion theory is but the atonement is rife with love: love from the Father and the Son for us, the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father. And I am impressed that in the midst of this, because of the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus, He has great empathy with each of us. We read D&C 122:8 and 88:6, which made me think of Heb 4:15. We have a God who understands everything about mortality, the temptations of sin and the agony not only of physical pain but of spiritual anguish. He has suffered more than I will ever and this compels me to seek Him out as one who understands me and where I am and also to honor Him and reverence Him and try to be like Him (moral theory?). In this, the atonement then binds us to God with love. He has saved us, so we love Him. He understands us and comforts us in our times of need, so we love Him.

    Specifically from D&C 19, I learn that the atonement is truly unlimited. Jesus tells us that if we do not repent, then we must suffer (v. 4) but that such suffering is not endless in the sense of time but endless in the sense of God’s law and its affixed consequences being eternal (v.11-12). My extrapolation of these verses is that all mankind, at some point, is saved by the atonement, even those in the Telestial Kingdom and that the only ones who truly remain untouched by Jesus’ sacrifice are those who knowingly and willingly refuse the gift (the sons of Perdition).

  2. Very well stated! I think that the atonement will be a uniquely personal experience for each one of us. We will all draw on different aspects of the gift offered us in different ways. No matter which if any of the well researched theories above(thanks for your extra mile of research!) we may ascribe to, the power of the atonement in our lives comes down to one thing. Do we accept it or not? If not, sit back and watch your life fly by, but don’t expect exualtation in the end. If we do, then the burden to keep the commandments to the best of our ability, seek repentance when necessary, and endure to the end will bring us the greatest of all the blessings of the atonement-ETERNAL LIFE!

  3. I confess to getting way to esoteric on atonement theories. You can really freak your mind out on them! But I do realize that the atonement was designed for the simplest mind to understand and grasp hold of. I love studying atonement theory, but when it comes down to it, we don’t have to know exactly how it works in order for it to be effective.

    Since Jesus is our ADVOCATE, he is the one who is drawing us to the Father, toward eternal life, and he will represent our case and do his best to get us there.

    3 Ne 27:14-15
    And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—
    And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works.

  4. I think my favorite verse in this regarding Jesus as advocate is D&C 45:3, “Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him.” I love the idea of Jesus, now, actively praying on our behalf and pleading with the Father for us. It’s a beautiful statement on how the atonement is an ongoing thing and that Jesus is just as concerned for each of us now as He was for Mary, Martha and Lazarus back in the day.

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