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Mormonism’s Confusion Over Christ’s Atonement for Sin

by Sharon Lindbloom
26 March 2021

In the April 2021 issue of Liahona magazine, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explains in its “Gospel Basics” column that “Jesus Christ Saved Us from Sin and Death.”

“We refer to Jesus Christ as our Savior. That is because He paid the price for our sins and overcame the power of death. He saved us! His sacrifice for us, called the Atonement, is the most important event that ever happened.”

The column explains under the sub-heading, “Jesus Christ Paid for Our Sins,” that Jesus “went to a garden called Gethsemane to pray. During that prayer, He began to pay the price for our sins. He willingly suffered so that we don’t have to – if we repent.” The following section of the column, “Jesus Christ Overcame Death,” moves the story from the Garden to the Cross:

“After His prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus was betrayed, arrested, and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Even though He was all-powerful, Jesus allowed Himself to die on the cross. His followers lovingly placed His body in a tomb. They didn’t realize that although His body was dead, His spirit was still alive in the spirit world. Three days later, Jesus came to life again and visited them, proving that He could conquer death. This completed the Atonement. Because Jesus was resurrected, each of us will live again after we die.”

Elsewhere in this issue of the Liahona, the teaching I’ve just outlined from the “Gospel Basics” column is called “doctrinal error.” Let me back up a bit.

The great Christian evangelist of the 18th century, John Wesley, once wrote, ““Nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of the atonement.” This doctrine is explained and well-attested in the Bible. For example,

“…Christ died for our sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-3)

“…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

“…we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son…” (Romans 5:10)

The Christian understanding of the doctrine of Christ’s atonement has its roots in the Old Testament:

“Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The reference to Jesus as the Lamb of God points back to the institution of the Jewish Passover in Exodus 12. The Israelites were commanded to sacrifice an unblemished lamb and smear the blood of that lamb on the doorposts of their homes. The blood would be the sign for the Angel of Death to ‘pass over’ that house, leaving those covered by blood in safety. When Jesus came to John to be baptized, John recognized Him and cried, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29), thereby identifying Him and God’s plan for Him to be sacrificed for sin.” (Got Questions, “What is the Meaning of the Cross?”)

Because of the clear biblical teaching, Christians have well-understood Christ’s atoning death for 2000 years.

But Latter-day Saints seem to be confused about Christ’s atonement for sin. This, even though the LDS church claims that the Book of Mormon clarifies doctrines that are taught in the Bible and affirms it has an on-site prophet that makes sure LDS doctrine is accurate and understandable.

Historically, LDS leaders have held to three different ideas about Christ’s atonement for sin:

  1. Christ atoned for sin by His death on the Cross.
  2. Christ atoned for sin by His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane.
  3. Christ began to atone for sin by His suffering in the Garden, then completed atonement for sin by His suffering and/or death on the Cross.

Idea #1 has been the least popular over Mormonism’s history, but there are some examples of such teaching: The Book of Mormon says that Jesus was “slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14). And at the April 1969 General Conference Marion D. Hanks noted that  Jesus “died willingly…for the sins of men—our sins—payment for which, through the love of God and the love of his Son, was made on Calvary’s hill.”

The “Gospel Basics” column mentioned above promotes idea #2. Historically, this seems to be a very popular understanding throughout Mormon history. Consider just a few examples:

“It was in Gethsemane that Jesus took on Himself the sins of the world, in Gethsemane that His pain was equivalent to the cumulative burden of all men, in Gethsemane that He descended below all things so that all could repent and come to Him.” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 15)

“And as he came out of the Garden, delivering himself voluntarily into the hands of wicked men, the victory had been won. There remained yet the shame and the pain of his arrest, his trials, and his cross. But all these were overshadowed by the agonies and suf­ferings in Gethsemane. It was on the cross that he ‘suffered death in the flesh,’ even as many have suffered agonizing deaths, but it was in Gethsemane that ‘he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him’.” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 4:127-128) s

“The driving of the nails into his hands and into the Savior’s feet was the least part of his suffering. We get into the habit, I think, of feeling, or thinking that his great suffering was being nailed to the cross and left to hang there. Well, that was a period in the world’s history when thousands of men suffered that way. So his suffering, so far as that is concerned, was not any more than the suffering of other men who have been so crucified. What, then, was his great suffering? I wish we could impress this fact upon the minds of every member of this Church: His great suffering occurred before he ever went to the cross. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane, so the scriptures tell us, that blood oozed from every pore of his body; and in the extreme agony of his soul, he cried to his Father. It was not the nails driven into his hands and feet. Now do not ask me how that was done because I do not know. Nobody knows. All we know is that in some way he took upon himself that extreme penalty. He took upon him our transgressions, and paid a price, a price of torment.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 2013, 63)

Thus, according to an LDS prophet, Jesus was tormented for our sins. This idea, however, doesn’t fit with the Old Testament model that set the stage for Jesus’ atonement. Under Old Testament law, the sacrificial lambs were not tormented – they were killed.

Nevertheless, idea #2 is also presented in the “scripture stories” found in the LDS church’s new Gospel Kids app. Many of the stories, written and illustrated for young children, include teaching on Christ and His atonement. I haven’t read every story, but five of the New Testament stories that I’ve read present Christ’s atonement for sin as “suffering,” and separate that suffering for sin from His later death on the cross. For example,

Our Heavenly Father’s Plan says Jesus “agreed to suffer for our sins. He would also die and be resurrected so we would be resurrected too.”

The Savior Goes to Jerusalem says Jesus “would suffer for the sins of all people and then die on a cross.”

Jesus Suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane explains that “Jesus knew He needed to suffer for the sins of all people…He suffered so much that he sweat drops of blood. He was suffering for all of our sins so that we can be forgiven if we repent.”

Interestingly, the story titled Jesus Is Crucified doesn’t even mention sin or explain why Jesus died: “The Savior suffered on the cross for many hours. Finally His spirit left His body, and He died.”

Certainly the message children take away from these stories is that Jesus suffered for our sins.

The April Liahona magazine includes another article on this topic titled, “Jesus Suffered, Died, and Rose Again for Us” by John Hilton III. This article denies what is taught in the “Gospel Basics” article from the same magazine and promotes the atonement-for-sin idea #3. Dr. Hilton writes,

“While some people have supposed that Christ suffered for our sins only in Gethsemane, Gerald N. Lund, who later became a member of the Seventy, called this a ‘doctrinal error.’ In fact, more than 50 passages of scripture teach that Jesus Christ died for our sins;… In addition to suffering for our sins in Gethsemane, the Savior died for them on the cross.”

The “Gospel Basics” column, of course, does include the fact that Jesus died on a cross. But note that it does not say anything about His death in connection to “our sin.” So, if Dr. Hilton’s article is correct, the “Gospel Basics” article — as well as the teachings of many past LDS leaders – must be classified as “doctrinal error.” This is a strange position to be in for a church that touts living prophets and apostles who are equipped for and tasked with maintaining doctrinal purity.

In the Bible there is no confusion over Christ’s atonement for sin. From God’s promise to provide a sacrificial lamb found in Genesis 22, to the “thousands of thousands” who praise “the Lamb who was slain” in Revelation 5, the Bible proclaims Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

The Bible makes clear that we “all have sinned,” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Therefore, “Christ died for our sins,” (1 Corinthians 15:3), “the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).

Jesus did suffer great agonies, yet the Bible states unequivocally that it was the vicarious death of Christ that paid the penalty for our sins and reconciled us to God. Because of this truth, unlike Mormonism that downplays the cross, Christians cherish the cross of Christ. We praise and thank God for His great mercy extended to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain.

“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-

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