It was one of those days when I was unexpectedly taught by the students in my seminary class of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I don’t know why it’s ever unexpected, but it seems like the lessons sink in more deeply for me when they are.
I was leading a discussion about the Atonement when one of my students mentioned a sacrament talk during which the speaker posed a very thought-provoking question.
“Imagine being a world-renowned artist,” the speaker said. “Imagine having the ability to paint anything your soul inspired you to paint. Now imagine (the prophet) commissioned you to paint a picture that would hang in his office. The request? To paint a picture depicting the Atonement. (He) doesn’t offer any details, just ‘paint the Atonement.’”
What would you paint? Would you paint the Savior in the rain- and blood-soaked grass of Gethsemane? Hanging on the cross underneath the dismally dark skies matched only by the pain in the heart of the Savior’s mother below him? The ensuing joy on the face of the beautiful women made even more striking by the sight of Jesus Christ freed from the tomb? Anything in between?
As my students discussed what they would paint, I thought about what I would paint. It was a difficult question to answer. How do you capture the most majestic act in the history of mankind?
In this life, we are constantly learning about the Atonement, but we may never fully understand it here. However, that should not stop us from learning how it works and, more importantly, how it works in our lives.
To learn how it works, we have to know that we live in a universe created by God and governed by his laws. One of those laws is the law of justice. Justice demands that we pay for every sin or mistake we make. There are consequences for every action we take, good or bad. That is the principle of justice.
Justice would require that none of us live in the presence of God because we’ve all made mistakes and we’ve all committed sin. So Jesus stepped in and made a deal with justice.
Jesus paid justice by forgoing the blessings that come from living the perfect life that he lived and paid justice. The pains he experienced in Gethsemane were, in part, all the consequences of our sins.
Justice doesn’t care who pays, as long as the payment is made, as long as each action has a commensurate consequence suffered for or enjoyed by someone. Since justice is only concerned with repayment, Jesus’ suffering sufficed. Thus, Jesus made a deal with justice and now Jesus makes a deal with us.
The great thing about this new deal is that where justice wants only repayment, Jesus now wants repentance.
The difference is that where repayment brings a clean slate, repentance brings purity and change. Repayment brings satisfaction; repentance brings happiness. Repayment makes it as if the sins and mistakes never existed, but genuine repentance changes us so that we will not commit the sin or make the mistake again. This is the brilliance of the plan of salvation.
Sure, if Jesus had not stepped in and accomplished the atonement, we may have eventually been able to pay justice by suffering every conceivable consequence of our sins and mistakes, but what would motivate us to not make those mistakes again?
Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-18 tells us that justice will be paid, either by us or by him. But it will be paid. If we choose not to repent and rely on Jesus Christ, we will have to suffer for the consequences of our sins. But the difference between suffering for our own sins and relying on Jesus’ suffering for our sins is that his suffering will make us better — good enough for the celestial kingdom. Our suffering may make us clean, but it will not make us better.
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