Delivered by Michael Harward in a sacrament meeting of the Montgomery Ward, Cincinnati Ohio East Stake, Easter Sunday 31 March 2024

Over the years, I have found that my understanding of the Atonement has increased as I have spent more time identifying and understanding the doctrinal pillars it is based on.  Together, these pillars provide the context of the Atonement story.  Unfortunately, without understanding all the pillars, an understanding of the Atonement cannot be complete.

Here, then, is my current understanding of the doctrines that serve as foundational pillars for the Atonement.

First pillar:  The Nature of God

There is a God who is the creator/organizer of our spirits.  As our Father, He loves us perfectly completely and unconditionally.  There is nothing more important to Him than having us become like Him.  Everything He does is for that end.

Second pillar: God and Man Divide

There is a great divide between God and us, His children.  He is perfect and immortal.  We are not yet either one.

Third pillar:  The Plan of Eternal Progression

In order to become like Him, God created a plan for us to progress from our pre-mortal existence, into a mortal one, followed by a post-mortal existence where we will continue to progress until we eventually become like God our Father.

Fourth pillar:  Purpose of Mortal life

During our mortal existence, God wants us to have the experience of having a body, learn how to deal with the conflict of good and evil, and learn to harness our agency.  He wants these for us because they will help us become more like Him.

Fifth pillar:  Universality and Individuality of the Plan

The plan is for all of God’s children, but it applies to us individually: each of us must make our own progress through the plan.  However, the plan also includes learning to live in community with everyone else going through this same experience so that we can help each other along the way.

Sixth pillar:  Christ is the Executor of the Plan

In the pre-mortal realm, Jehovah (also known as Christ or Jesus) offered and was chosen to execute God’s plan.  His assignment was to both teach and show us the way to progress through the plan.

Seventh pillar:  Discipleship and Covenants

We accept and follow the plan when we accept and follow Jesus as His disciples.  We commit ourselves to the plan when we accept its conditions and promises.

Eighth pillar:  Mistakes Happen

Despite our good intentions, we all make mistakes.  We do things that thwart our progress along the path.  In fact, not only did God know that we would make mistakes, He also knew that of our own accord, none of us would or even could achieve the end goal of the plan which is to become like Him.

Ninth pillar:  The Savior and His Atonement

Anticipating that it would be impossible for us to achieve the end goal of the plan on our own, God included in the plan, the means for us to achieve that goal through the role of a savior.  Jesus offered to be that Savior; he offered to make it possible for us to be one with God.  We call that offering, that miracle made possible by the Savior, the Atonement.

With the pillars as background story now identified, I want to spend what is left of my time, attempting a deconstruction of the Atonement.  We have seen how it fits into the plan, but what is it?  How does it work?

The plan stipulates that each individual has to adhere to the conditions of the plan and that no buyouts or substitutions are allowed.  The Atonement is the mitigation, or the risk management plan, for achieving the end goal of the plan even though none of us is capable of reaching the goal on our own.  The beauty of the plan is that despite its seeming impossibility, God has not set up anyone for failure.  That would be antithetical to His whole purpose, which is that everyone would be able to return to Him.  Everyone.

God understood that mistakes would happen along a continuum, with the profoundly egregious such as murder or blasphemy at one extreme to simple forgetfulness or ignorance at the other.  However, no matter where along the continuum the mistakes happen, they thwart progress and necessitate recovery.  Just as some mistakes are more destructive than others, some recoveries take more of a effort to accomplish.  In all cases, recovery is initiated by repentance, repentance being the process of changing and improving.  Where repentance initiates recovery, Grace empowers it.  Grace is the power that allows anyone to overcome the effects of a mistake.  The impact of the recovery offered by Grace is forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the state of no long being constrained by or under the influence of an act of estrangement from God.

When I was growing up, we in the church talked about the Atonement mostly in terms of suffering, repentance and forgiveness.  We didn’t talk much about Grace.  Instead, we tried to make sense of the power Christ offered in terms of a debit and credit transaction.  The rhetoric went something like this:  we all incur debits or mistakes throughout our life.  In fact, we incur more debits than we have credits to offset them.  We all come up short.  Jesus, as Savior, steps in and offers to pay the difference so that we can be saved.

Fortunately, that explanation of the Atonement has matured over the last twenty or so years, giving way to an understanding that depends a lot more on Grace.  And aren’t we glad?

One of the most important things to understand about Grace is that it is a free gift.  Christ does not send us a bill.  He does not expect payment for His services.  And it is free for everyone.

Sometimes the gift of Grace is absolutely and unconditionally given whether we want it or not.  Resurrection is one of those cases.  But in other cases, there are conditions attached to receiving the gift of Grace.  One set of those conditions emerges in the process of repentance:  we have to repent sincerely with the intention of acknowledging and changing our mistakes, and not just to cover them up.  And the conditions are not simply a list of actions we must perform.

Grace is not just a substitute for the notion of a creditor paying for our debts.  Or as Bruce Hafen described it, Grace “is not a booster engine that kicks in once our fuel supply is exhausted.”  It is not paying the amount left on our bill when we don’t have enough in our cosmic bank account to pay for sanctification.  Rather, Brother Hafen continues, “it is our constant energy source.  It is not the light at the end of the tunnel but the light that moves us through the tunnel.” (The Broken Heart, 1989)

Thinking that Grace means that we do not have to completely pay for our mistakes is a false notion.  President Kimball explained that “the repenting sinner must suffer for his sins, but this suffering has a different purpose than punishment of payment. Its purpose is change.” (The Lord’s Way, 1991)

Another way to describe this aspect of Grace is that the change empowered by Grace is transformational and not transactional.

I used to think that as long as I accepted the Atonement, then I was “off the hook” for everything that was beyond my meager “after all I could do” part.  Similar to thinking that after I paid what I could and the Savior stepped in, I likewise thought that as long as I changed up to a certain point, Christ would step in and I would not have to change any more.  But that’s not how it works.  The plan is all about me changing and changing to the point where I am finally like God.  Yes, that is a hard journey.  And yes, that amount of change on my own accord is impossible.  I cannot do it by myself.

It’s not unlike what God did for the people of Alma and their ability to withstand the burdens placed on their shoulders by the Lamanites.  The weight of the burdens did not change, but their ability to bare them did.  President Oaks used an analogy of a parent paying for a child’s piano lessons.  The expectation of the agreement, the plan, was not that the child had to re-pay the parent, but the child’s payment was now in the form of practicing to become a competent piano player.  The child still had to pay, not in money for the lessons, but in practice to change and become something better.

So how does this transformational change happen?  How does the power of Grace work?  Here are some examples from my life.

When I was in high school, I played the piano in a lot of competitions and recitals.  I always got quite nervous at these performances, either by feeling completely out of control at the keyboard, or not being able to remember the music I had memorized.  However, in every occasion, I felt a physical power, which I now recognize as God’s Grace, come over me and allow me to perform successfully.

When I was a brand-new missionary in France, my senior companion and I shared an apartment with another pair of missionaries.  The junior companion of the other pair was having an even more difficult time adjusting to his mission and understanding the language than I was.  One day, on a train ride to a neighboring city for a zone conference, he and I sat apart from the others and had a very good open heart to heart talk.  At first, I did not know what to say to him, but within a short space of time, I found myself saying words of encouragement that were not mine. I knew that a power of God, which I now recognize as Grace, was guiding me in knowing what to say.

The summer I was Grant Holbrook’s age, I attended a music camp at what was then Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho.  Since I had been taking organ lessons for a couple of years, I decided to sign up for advanced organ lessons at the camp.  At the end of the two weeks, we were expected to play a piece in a recital on the concert organ in the main performance auditorium of the college.  Though not as big as the Tabernacle Organ, it was much bigger in size and sound than anything I had played before.  Needless to say, I felt a bit overwhelmed.  As I started to play, I didn’t feel a power that gave me strength or helped me remember what I had memorized, but I could hear my teacher singing along with me—which helped keep me calm and remember the notes I was supposed to play.

When Nancy and I moved out of our child-bearing stage of life into a child-rearing one, and as I was trying to advance my career and take care of my family, I realized that I had a pretty stiff heart, and worse than that I was basically an angry person.  I was angry that my career was not going the way I had expected it to.  I was angry that I was being recognized for the wrong things.  I was angry at God because I felt lost and alone.  But I was self-aware enough that I knew I needed to change—not only my anger, but my job.  After unsuccessfully trying for several years, I wanted to give up.  I just didn’t believe I could do it.

On a whim, I applied for a job in Hamilton Ohio and was invited to come for some interviews.  After a very successful day, as I was boarding the plane to return home, I unexpectedly felt a power come over me and almost literally take hold of my old, angry self, throw it out the door, and leave it on the tarmac.  I felt like a completely different person. I knew God believed in me and He was offering me this wonderful opportunity to change.  Obviously, I got the job, we moved to Cincinnati and my life and that of my family was transformed for the good.

Not all experiences with Grace have involved me directly.  I have been fortunate enough to have had callings in the church where I have been able to watch Grace work in the lives of others and to see them transformed into new beings.  And some of these have been very private.  In one case, I really wanted the individual to share what they had gone through in order to help others along their own journey.  But I couldn’t do so without compromising the privacy of that person.  What I learned is that Grace often happens in very private moments and happens just for us.

As I have tried to figure out how Grace works on an individual, I have felt a transformational and enabling power when I think of the example of humility that the Savior has shown all of us.  Everything he did, including the events of this Easter week, everything He still does and will do in the future is driven by His desire to fulfill the will of His Father.  Most of the mistakes I currently make in my life, that thwart my process, have to do with humility—or rather, the lack of humility.  I want to do things my way; I want to believe that my understanding of a particular situation or even life in general is correct and the way to go.

Knowing that Christ has been there, that He has submitted His will to that of the Father, reminds me, yeah empowers me that I can, too.  His Grace allows me to swallow my pride because I know that He has done the same.

I pray that we all can take time to stop and re-insert ourselves into the context of the story of God’s plan for us, that we can remember the doctrinal pillars that support that story, and that we can contemplate what the Savior has made possible through His Atonement, so that we too can fell the transformational power of His Grace.