Your purpose as a missionary is to invite others to come unto Christ by helping them accept the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement. If missionaries are to help other people receive salvation through the Atonement of Christ, then they really should understand it themselves. This article aims to help missionaries and future missionaries understand what the atonement of Jesus Christ is and how it applies to missionary work.
What is the Atonement of Jesus Christ?
President Russell M. Nelson, in his talk from the April 2017 General Conference called Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into Our Lives, gave one of the best definitions I have heard of the atonement of Jesus Christ. He said, “As Latter-day Saints, we refer to His mission as the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which made resurrection a reality for all and made eternal life possible for those who repent of their sins and receive and keep essential ordinances and covenants.”
That’s it. It’s just that simple, yet that huge. The the Atonement of Jesus Christ is the mission of Jesus Christ. From start to finish, Jesus’ atonement is His mission and his mission was to be the Savior, to create this earth, to come to earth himself, to show us the way, to heal the sick, to teach the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, to offer himself as the great atoning sacrifice, and to be resurrected on the third day. And I would say Jesus’ mission is not over and continues today as He leads His restored Church on the earth and is paving the way for His second coming. Perhaps this is why some authors have called it the continuous atonement.
The Atoning Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
I think it is very important that we not to equate “the atoning sacrifice” of Our Savior with “the atonement” of Jesus Christ. Christ’s atonement includes much more than the suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. The atoning sacrifice was certainly part of His atonement or mission, but it was not all of it. I don’t wish to diminish in any way those events and what He did for all humanity by suffering and dying and resurrecting for us. It is just that the the atonement of Jesus Christ includes more than the atoning sacrifice and I think it leads to confusion and limits our ability to draw the power of Jesus Christ into our lives when we misuse the terms.
President Russel M. Nelson, in the same talk referenced above, made some similar remarks to help us as a Church begin the process of better drawing on the power and blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ when he corrected our language around the use of the word atonement. He said:
It is doctrinally incomplete to speak of the Lord’s atoning sacrifice by shortcut phrases, such as “the Atonement” or “the enabling power of the Atonement” or “applying the Atonement” or “being strengthened by the Atonement.” These expressions present a real risk of misdirecting faith by treating the event as if it had living existence and capabilities independent of our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ….There is no amorphous entity called ‘the Atonement’ upon which we may call for succor, healing, forgiveness, or power. Jesus Christ is the source. Sacred terms such as Atonement and Resurrection describe what the Savior did, according to the Father’s plan, so that we may live with hope in this life and gain eternal life in the world to come” (Drawing the Power of Jesus Christ into Our Lives by President Russell M. Nelson).
“Atonement, an accepted theological term, comes from neither a Greek nor a Latin word, but is good old English and really does mean, when we write it out, “at-one-ment,” denoting both a state of being “at one” with another and the process by which that end is achieved.”
To atone, the root word of atonement, means both a state of being “at one” with God and the process by which that is achieved (see The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 1 by Hugh W. Nibley). Jesus taught that He and the Father are one and that each of us should be one with them (see John 17: 11, 21). In a miraculous and unfathomable way, Jesus Christ has made atonement for us and has made it possible, through His mission and atoning sacrifice, that we can be one with God some day. Because of Christ’s Atonement, all people will be resurrected and live forever, and those who obey the laws and ordinances of the gospel will receive the greatest of all gifts, eternal life with God (see Article of Faith 3.
The least understood of all our revealed truths
The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the most important doctrine of the restored gospel, yet perhaps also the most difficult to comprehend. True understanding of this topic will only come after much study, meditation, and prayer. Elder Bruce R. McConkie said:
“The atonement of Christ is the most basic and fundamental doctrine of the gospel, and it is the least understood of all our revealed truths. Many of us have a superficial knowledge and rely upon the Lord and his goodness to see us through the trials and perils of life. But if we are to have faith like Enoch and Elijah we must believe what they believed, know what they knew, and live as they lived. May I invite you to join with me in gaining a sound and sure knowledge of the Atonement” (The Purifying Power of Gethsemane).
The Infinite Atonement
One of the reasons why the Atonement is difficult to be understood is that we are mortal beings with finite thinking, yet Christ’s Atonment is infinite. Amulek, the missionary companion of the prophet Alma in the Book of Mormon, said: “there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.” (Alma 34:12) The prophet Jacob, the brother of Nephi, in the Book of Mormon also spoke of the infinite atonement:
“For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord. Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption.” (2 Nephi 9:6-7)
What is the Gospel? The Good News of Christ’s Atonement
The full-time missionary guide is called Preach My Gospel which begs the question, what is the gospel of Jesus Christ? The LDS Bible Dictionary says that the word “gospel” means good news and the good news, specifically, is “that Jesus Christ has made a perfect atonement.”
3 Nephi 27: 13-14 gives a similar definition of the gospel: “And this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me. And my Father sent me that I might be 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.”
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ died for us and atoned for our sins and has made it possible that we can repent and return to live with our Father in Heaven.
How the Atonement of Christ relates to missionary work
Elder Russell M. Nelson explained the relationship between understanding the Atonement of Christ and having a desire to serve a mission. “That is why we have missionaries; that is why we have temples—to bring the fullest blessings of the Atonement to faithful children of God. That is why we respond to our own calls from the Lord. When we comprehend His voluntary Atonement, any sense of sacrifice on our part becomes completely overshadowed by a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege of serving Him.” (The Atonement, Oct. 1996)
As your understanding of the Atonement of Jesus Christ grows, your desire to share the gospel will increase. You will feel, as Lehi did, the “great . . . importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth” (2 Nephi 2:8). Here are some examples of the natural desire to do missionary work growing as people come to understand the significance and blessings of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
- The Sons of Mosiah: They desired to “go up to the land of Nephi that they might preach the things which they had heard, and that they might impart the word of God to their brethren, the Lamanites—That perhaps they might bring them to the knowledge of the Lord their God,…that they might also be brought to rejoice in the Lord their God, …Now they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish.” (Mosiah 28: 1-3)
- Lehi in his vision of the Tree of Life: “And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also.” (1 Nephi 8:11-12)
- President Howard W. Hunter: “What does the Atonement have to do with missionary work? Any time we experience the blessings of the Atonement in our lives, we cannot help but have a concern for the welfare of others. . . . A great indicator of one’s personal conversion is the desire to share the gospel with others.” (“The Atonement and Missionary Work,” seminar for new mission presidents, 21 June 1994)
Greater love hath no man
Heavenly Father and Jesus showed their love for all of mankind through the mission and atonement of Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Charity is defined in the scriptures as the pure love of Christ. How was that loved manifested? The pure love of Christ is seen through the Savior’s willingness to pay the ultimate price and to make a selfless sacrifice to fulfill the Atonement.
I testify that Christ lived on this earth and performed the great atoning sacrifice. I know that through faith in him and by following his ways, we can be cleansed of our sins. This is the greatest miracle of all of God’s miracles. Through faith, repentance, baptism, and the other ordinances and covenants of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, we can be made whole, worthy, and able to return to our Heavenly father’s presence and partake of the greatest gifts, exaltation and eternal life. I pray that all the young people reading this will study and pray and gain a testimony of the Atonement of Christ, and then show your love and gratitude for the Lord by being a missionary and bringing souls unto Him.