Two parables about the Atonement

By Eric Johnson

In the popular church manual Gospel Principles, Apostle Boyd K. Packer told a story at the April 1977 General Conference (chapter 12 of GP, “The Atonement,” pages 63-65, in Ensign, May 1977, pp. 54-55) to show “how Christ’s Atonement makes it possible to be saved from sin if we do our part.” He gave a “parable,” explaining:

“There once was a man who wanted something very much. It seemed more important than anything else in his life. In order for him to have his desire, he incurred a great debt.

“He had been warned about going into that much debt, and particularly about his creditor. But it seemed so important for him to do what he wanted to do and to have what he wanted right now. He was sure he could pay for it later.

“So he signed a contract. He would pay it off some time along the way. He didn’t worry too much about it, for the due date seemed such a long time away. He had what he wanted now, and that was what seemed important.

“The creditor was always somewhere in the back of his mind, and he made token payments now and again, thinking somehow that the day of reckoning really would never come.

“But as it always does, the day came, and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full.

“Only then did he realize that his creditor not only had the power to repossess all that he owned, but the power to cast him into prison as well.

“‘I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so,’ he confessed.

“‘Then,’ said the creditor, ‘we will exercise the contract, take your possessions, and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced.’

“‘Can you not extend the time or forgive the debt?’ the debtor begged. ‘Arrange some way for me to keep what I have and not go to prison. Surely you believe in mercy? Will you not show mercy?’

“The creditor replied, ‘Mercy is always so one-sided. It would serve only you . If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand. Do you believe in justice?’

“‘I believed in justice when I signed the contract,’ the debtor said.

‘It was on my side then, for I thought it would protect me. I did not need mercy then, nor think I should need it ever. Justice, I thought, would serve both of us equally as well.’

“‘It is justice that demands that you pay the contract or suffer the penalty,’ the creditor replied. ‘That is the law. You have agreed to it and that is the way it must be. Mercy cannot rob justice.’

“There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy . Neither could prevail except at the expense of the other.

“‘If you do not forgive the debt there will be no mercy,’ the debtor pleaded.

“‘If I do, there will be no justice,’ was the reply.

“Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served, and mercy also?

“There is a way! The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time.

“The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He knew him to be shortsighted. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer.

“‘I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison.’

“As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, ‘You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just.’

“And so the creditor agreed.

“The mediator turned then to the debtor. ‘If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?’

“‘Oh yes, yes,’ cried the debtor. ‘You save me from prison and show mercy to me.’

“‘Then,’ said the benefactor, ‘you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison.’

“And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken.

“The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share, and mercy was fully satisfied.”

I want to say from the beginning that there is some truth in what this LDS apostle says. For example, the story is correct when it shows how:

  • God is just
  • Payment for the obligation is required
  • God is merciful

Yet Packer’s parable misses the entire gospel message and ends up becoming a heretical mess. When the fateful due date arrives, the debtor realizes that he doesn’t have sufficient funds. His friend comes to the “rescue.” Again, here is the exchange with the friend and creditor:

“‘I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison.’

“As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, ‘You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just.’

“And so the creditor agreed.”

If we end the story here, we must applaud this very orthodox description of the atonement. The friend in Packer’s story obviously represents Jesus who was, as Hebrews 2:17 says, “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 9:27 adds, “He [Jesus] sacrificed for their [the believers’] sins once for all when he offered himself.”

Unfortunately, Packer doesn’t end his story here. Incredibly, he adds this dialogue:

“The mediator turned then to the debtor. ‘If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?’

“‘Oh yes, yes,’ cried the debtor. ‘You save me from prison and show mercy to me.’”

Let’s consider the implications of these lines. The debtor owed a great debt. His friend came in and explained that he would pay the obligation in full. The original creditor agreed. Then, out of nowhere, this benefactor says that he would become the new creditor. If this is the case, then the debtor has done nothing more than refinance his debt. As Packer clearly states, the “benefactor” has become the new “creditor.” In essence, the debtor has received nothing more than a switching of creditors. Suppose I refinance my home mortgage with another company, which pays my total debt to the former creditor and then obligates me to pay them montly. Should this transfer of debt be considered “merciful”? Hardly. It’s still money that is due, albeit to a different compnay.

What Packer describes really is classic Mormonism. Twelfth President Spencer Kimball taught,

“Mercy cannot rob justice. The Lord’s program is unchangeable. His laws are immutable. They will not be modified. Your opinions or mine do not made any difference and do not alter the laws. Many of the world think that eventually the Lord will be merciful and give to them unearned blessings. Mercy cannot rob justice. College professors will not give you a doctorate degree for a few weeks of cursory work in the university, nor can the Lord be merciful at the expense of justice. In this program, which is infinitely greater, we will each receive what we merit. Do not take any chances whatever” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 150).

Thirteenth President Ezra Taft Benson was clearn when he said that mercy must be merited:

“We go to our chapels each week to worship the Lord and renew our covenants by partaking of the sacrament. We thereby promise to take His name upon us, to always remember Him, and keep all His commandments. Our agreement to keep all the commandments is our covenant with God. Only as we do this may we deserve His blessings and merit His mercy” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 442).

Apostle Bruce R. McConkie agreed, saying,

“All must repent to be free. All must obey to gain gospel blessings. All must keep the commandments to merit mercy” (The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ, p. 242).

Mormonism says that a person’s salvation must be earned. (For more on this topic, click here.) But this is not a biblical concept, in any way, shape, or form. Jesus did not come to merely refinance our debt; rather, he forgave His people once and for all. Consider what Peter told the Gentiles in Acts 10:43: “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Paul explained in Colossians 2:13-15:

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

Ephesians 1:13-14 says,

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

Neither Peter nor Paul speak about a restructuring of the debt. Instead, all sins—past, present, and future—are said to be forgiven, once for all.

In Hebrews 10:10, the author says that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Verse 14 adds, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Notice the emphasis on these verses:

1)      One sacrifice by the benefactor clears the debtor’s sin

2)      The benefactor is made “perfect” and “holy”

3)      This took place “once for all”

The following verses continue:

15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

 16 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord.

I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”

Then he adds:

17 “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”

18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.”

Someone might protest, “But don’t you believe in good works?” The answer is, unequivocally, yes. Good works become a part of  the genetic makeup of a person. The acts of the sinful nature are replaced with the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5). Those who understand the Christian definition of imputation—a word that means “having eternal life credited to one’s account based on belief in Jesus”—realize the incredible value of the gift. Those who are happy to remain in their sin—as Hebrews 10:26-27 talks about—never understood just how incredible this gift really was.

Paul teaches in Romans 8:1-2, 4 that

“there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death….in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Then, starting with verse 5, he says,

“5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.”

It is all summed up by 2 Corinthians 5:17,

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Contrary to Packer’s message, there is no shifting of debt. Rather, there is a complete transformation in the heart of the believer who wishes to please God; there is no goal of working off the debt.

Consider these other verses:

  • Romans 4:4: “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.”
  • Romans 5:18: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”
  • 2 Cor. 5:21: 21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
  • 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’”

For a Christian, good works are done out of gratitude for the gift that has been received. When Spirit-filled believers understand the price that was paid, they want to do good works in response to the sacrifice made by their Savior. The following illustration will help explain this concept:

It was the 16th birthday party of a young man. Parents, cousins, and friends watched as he opened each gift. Finally, it was time for his grandfather’s card, and Grandpa could hardly hide his excitement.

“Open it up,” Grandpa said. The young man did.

“Happy birthday, Grandson,” the card read. “I wanted to give you 10 for your birthday, which I have deposited into your savings account at the bank.”

The boy stared at the card for at least 15 seconds before finally looking up.

“Gee, thanks a lot, Grandpa,” he said, trying not to hide his disappointment. After all, what good is ten bucks for a 16-year-old who likes video games?

A few weeks later, the grandson was driving around town when he realized that his car was almost out of gas. Since he had no money in his pocket, he remembered the $10 that his grandfather deposited for him in the bank. He made a quick detour and pulled into the bank’s parking lot. It wasn’t much, but it was better than running out of gas in just a few miles.

The boy went inside, waited in line, and then approached the teller, handing her the passbook. She checked his account on the computer, writing some numbers into his passbook and handing him a crisp $10 bill. “Have a good day,” she said as the boy walked away.

As he walked outside, he opened up the passbook and glanced at the first page. All of a sudden, the boy became angry. No, “livid” would be a better description. Who in their right minds would play such a cruel joke? he thought to himself. Seconds later he was back at the teller’s window.

“How dare you!” he said angrily. “This is a terrible joke.”

“What are you talking about?” the teller replied.

“Look,” he said, waving his passbook.,“you wrote $9,999,990 into my passbook. Why would you do that?”

She smiled, turned her monitor toward him, and, pointing at the screen, said, “Well, you walked in here with $10 million in your account. But you took $10 out, so this is what you have left.”

The boy’s jaw suddenly dropped. How foolish! His grandfather had given him $10 million, not $10! For these past few weeks, the boy had lived no differently than he had before, even though his account was loaded with cash. He had not comprehend what he had been given. While the boy might have gotten C’s in math class, he quickly figured out that the average person doesn’t even earn $10 million in a lifetime.

How would most people react when they heard about such a gift? Would this young man be angry with his grandfather? Would he decide to go to his grandfather’s house and spray paint graffiti on the garage door, put lye in the grass, and kick the dog? Even the most selfish 16-year-old boy would realize the  sacrifice made by the man he called “Grandpa.” If it were me, he would do his best to figure out what he could do to show his appreciation. By itself, a thank you card certainly would seem inadequate.

“I know,” he said to himself as he got back into his car. “I’m going over to Grandpa’s house and see if there is anything I can do for him.”

Can you imagine the reaction when he arrived at the house? There would be a giant hug for Grandpa, of course, and a kiss on his cheek. And tears flowed, even though this isn’t a typical characteristic for a a teenage boy.

“Grandpa,” he said a few minutes later. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Well, I had to lay off the gardeners, so my lawn could use a mowing,” Grandpa said with a smile, understanding that it can feel good for the receiver of a gift to be able to show gratitude by doing something nice in return.

Five minutes later, this young man was whistling while walking the mower up and down the lawn. Don’t kid yourself, it wasn’t easy. The bag on the mower kept filling up and needed to be emptied. Yes, and the sun was sweltering. But he didn’t seem to mind. In two hours flat, the job was done. The boy felt so good to do something that his grandfather wanted done! In fact, the grandson decided to come back the following week and do it again. This, in turn, brought such joy that he returned 52 straight weeks to do this job!

At the end of the year, imagine if this young man walked up to his grandfather and said, “Grandpa, I’m all paid up.”

“What do you mean?” his grandfatehr asked.

“Well, you gave me $10 million, so I’ve spent two hours each week for the entire year mowing your grass. I’ve paid my debt in full.”

The grandfather could do nothing but scratch his chin. “Hmmm,” he said, “You’re a little more expensive than my last gardeners. I didn’t realize that I was spending $192,000 every time you came over!”

Every rational person can see that mowing the grandfather’s grass for 52 weeks. . . or even 520 or (how about this) 5,200 weeks. . . . would not be able to cover the debt if he was doing this for repayment. If the grandson forgot to come over one week or did an inadequate job the next, the grandfather was not going to say, “Son, you disappoint me. I’m taking away your money!” Wages are paid to those who work for them; gifts are received by those who did nothing for them. How much clearer can Ephesians 2:8-9 be? It says:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.”

If the gift of the grandfather was nothing more than just the shifting of debt, then there was nothing the grandson could possibly do (unless he was a pitcher for the New York Yankees) to earn this incredible amount of money. Regardless that the debt had been refinanced, it would still need to be paid, and as we have said, very few people can even make $10 million by themselves without an inheritance.

Ahh, but the boy did receive an inheritance, as the grandfather sacrificed on his behalf. As Hebrews 9:15 explains, “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”

Of course, someone could quibble and say that the grandfather in the above parable was still living. Yes, he was, and the grandson received his inheritance before Grandpa died. And while Jesus did die, He is resurrected and is now living. Jesus said in Revelation 1:18, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!”

Indeed, Packer’s illustration mishandles the biblical principle of the atonement. Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” If the gospel is nothing more than a refinancing of debt—with the borrower still unable to pay the debt off—then there can be no peace. It is unfortunate that Mormonism’s leaders demand the impossible from their people. As the great hymn says, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.”