By Sharon Lindbloom
25 March 2016
In preparation for Easter, the LDS Church’s March Ensign magazine includes a “Gospel Classic” article titled, “The Three Gardens of God.” Originally titled, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” this was a General Conference address delivered by LDS Apostle Bruce McConkie in April 1985.
The March 2016 Ensign article is significantly shorter than Mr. McConkie’s original sermon, as indicated by ellipses in the text. Nearly 1,200 words of the Mormon apostle’s teachings on the Atonement have not been included. And this is interesting because, just before inviting his original audience to “join with me in gaining a sound and sure knowledge of the Atonement,” (an invitation that is also included in the 2016 article), Mr. McConkie bemoaned the fact that many Mormons have just a “superficial knowledge” of that doctrine and cautioned,
“Now, 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.”
Perhaps the Ensign just did not have space to include all of Mr. McConkie’s teaching in its reprint of this “Gospel Classic.” But surely an apostle’s proclamation of the most fundamental and least understood doctrine of the LDS Church, revealed to him and shared with his listeners as “the Holy Spirit of God has borne witness,” would be supremely valuable.
And, in fact, the Mormon apostle’s teachings that were excluded from the current reprint did include several things that are distinctive to the LDS view of the Atonement and eternal life.
For example, in addition to the Mormon view that Christ’s atonement provided resurrection as a free gift to every person who has ever lived on this earth,
“all who believe and obey the glorious gospel of God, all who are true and faithful and overcome the world, all who suffer for Christ and his word, all who are chastened and scourged in the Cause of him whose we are—all shall become as their Maker and sit with him on his throne and reign with him forever in everlasting glory.”
The focus here is the reward that will come to those who obey, who are true and faithful, who overcome, who suffer – in other words, those who are worthy shall “become as their Maker” and reign in everlasting glory. As Mr. McConkie clarified elsewhere,
“Again: ‘Him that overcometh…’ shall have exaltation and godhood. As Deity now is, he shall become. He shall have eternal life” (Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, 367)
Christian author Eric Johnson once noted,
“In Mormonism, becoming ‘gods’ is the goal. Obtaining that goal only comes by keeping all covenants. This is an impossible gospel. Christians don’t believe they will become gods in their own right to follow the pattern of God the Father. Yes, Christians will be glorified and will reside with God forever. But to become ‘gods,’ the Bible does not teach this concept.”
Furthermore, the Bible does teach that no one can make himself or herself worthy of eternal life. No one perfectly obeys, no one is wholly true and faithful (see Romans 3:9-20), but “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
Another distinctive in the Mormon view of the Atonement is the emphasis placed on the Garden of Gethsemane. This was an important part of Mr. McConkie’s original address. He said Gethsemane “is where the Sinless Son of the Everlasting Father took upon himself the sins of all men on condition of repentance.” There he “sweat great gouts of blood” and suffered in “both body and spirit.” Mr. McConkie taught that in Gethsemane Christ’s
“suffering satisfied the demands of justice, ransomed penitent souls from the pains and penalties of sin, and made mercy available to those who believe in his holy name.”
Elsewhere this Mormon apostle wrote,
“Where and under what circumstances was the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God made? Was it on the Cross of Calvary or in the Garden of Gethsemane? It is to the Cross of Christ that most Christians look when centering their attention upon the infinite and eternal atonement. And certainly the sacrifice of our Lord was completed when he was lifted up by men; also, that part of his life and suffering is more dramatic and, perhaps, more soul stirring. But in reality the pain and suffering, the triumph and grandeur, of the atonement took place primarily in Gethsemane.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 1:774)
However, the Bible makes clear that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). As Bill McKeever has noted,
“One of the biggest reasons to reject the [Mormon] Gethsemane theory is what Christ Himself said. Based on Christ’s prayer [in the Garden of Gethsemane], there seems to be no doubt that He was praying for Himself in light of the suffering He was about to endure. It could be easily summarized that Jesus agonized for Himself in the Garden, as opposed to the cross where He agonized for mankind.”
Indeed, the biblical prophets and apostles offer a consistent teaching on Christ’s atonement: that we are forgiven and reconciled to God by Jesus’ death on the cross.
“but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8-10. Emphasis mine.)
Mormon prophets and apostles, though they profess to be ministers of a restoration of the ancient, biblical faith, have long downplayed the profound meaning of the cross of Christ. They focus on Jesus’ agony in the Garden and teach that it was there that Christ atoned for our sins. The apostle Paul said,
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
May Mormons follow Bruce McConkie’s admonition to gain a sound and sure knowledge of Christ’s atonement; in doing so may they find peace in the blessed cross of Christ.
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)