Jennifer (3 of 3)

You, observant reader, have probably noticed that this post will have three, not two, parts. Perhaps you are hoping the last chapter in this saga contains a miracle, an epiphany, the story of Jennifer running into the chapel just at the end of Sacrament Meeting and later explaining to us the resurrection of her testimony after a long night of doubt. I, too, wish the story ended that way; and perhaps that will happen some day. For now, however, the story ends as I have already described, with a “letter of resignation” delivered to the Bishop (Jake and Jennifer, incidentally, drifted apart and eventually broke up some months before these latest events).

This story, however, affords us an opportunity to look to ourselves and learn. Jennifer says she left the Church because we do not accept Christ’s grace in the way she believes we must. Such a belief is complicated, as are all perceptions, by the fact that it is, by definition, of dual nature. Every perception involves both the perceiver and the perceived. I can do little, I suppose, to change the perceiver in this case. What processes play themselves out in Jennifer’s head I do not know; what complexities she brings from her former religion, experiences, friends, and family are mostly a mystery to me. I can, however, at least comment on the belief she perceives we have—on her perception that we downplay the importance of Christ’s sacrifice. This belief, of course, is hardly unique to her; many of the Church’s critics site this same supposed problem.

My brother, for instance, was once teaching an investigator in a public library when an unknown lady approached the missionaries and the investigator and said, “Don’t listen to them—Mormons remove Christ from his thrown and place themselves there instead!” That this belief holds such wide sway troubles me deeply because I believe our canon so clearly refutes it–we, of all people, should be quick to affirm the infinity, grandeur, depth, breadth, centrality, and uniqueness of the Atonement.

For me, one of the most telling scriptures as to the importance of the Atonement in LDS theology comes in section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. This section, after all, is very “Mormon,” describing, as it does, the spirits “assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world.” The concept of the Spirit World, as described here, is, so far as I know, unique to the religion(s) restored by Joseph. Furthermore, Joseph F. Smith describes a uniquely Mormon congregation of prophets and righteous leaders, including, as his list does, “the prophets who dwelt among the Nephites and testified of the coming of the son of God,” as well as, “The Prophet Joseph Smith, and [Joseph F. Smith’s] father, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, [and] Wilford Woodruff.”

That a modern Mormon prophet should have a vision of his predecessors–Biblical, Nephite, and American–does not surprise us. What might be surprising to some, however, is what I consider the focal verse of this section. For, after viewing this vast assemblage of the Savior’s faithful servants, Joseph sees the arrival of the Son of God into the spirit world, which he describes this way: “And the saints rejoiced in their redemption, and bowed the knee and acknowledged the Son of God as their Redeemer and Deliverer from death and the chains of hell.”

When we learn that “every knee shall bow,” then, we are not speaking only of the small and simple among us, but also of the spiritually mighty–even the light of the “noble and great ones” pales before the brilliance of the Bright and Morning Star.

The expansiveness of Mormon theology invigorates me; it is, as Elder Maxwell would say, “inexhaustible.” As W. W. Phelps wrote near the dawn of this dispensation: “The visions and blessings of old are returning, and angels are coming to visit the Earth…. The knowledge and power of God are expanding; the veil o’er the Earth is beginning to burst.” Joseph Smith responded to Emerson’s call for modern prophets and the Pentecost that subsequently burst upon Kirtland, Independence, and Nauvoo is surely one of the great spiritual outpourings in the Earth’s history. For the believing Saints, a window of some twenty-five years included the opening of the heavens, the restoration of Priesthood, the bestowal of new scriptures, the return of the sealing power, the introduction of vicarious ordinances, and the return of the new Testament Church. Let us assure, however, that we always remember that this glorious burst of Gospel light nevertheless does not negate the importance of the central act of history: the Atonement of Jesus Christ. As planets circling the sun, or as spokes turning about the hub, all aspects of the Gospel are, as Joseph once wrote, appendages to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Without that, everything else—from the creation, to the fall, to the restoration, to the Latter-days—is for naught. Christ is, indeed, the Life; for without Him nothing else breathes nor moves. It is his sacrifice, which ultimately gives meaning and substance to all the rest.

This testimony I have gained, mostly, from my study of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. I share President Hinckley’s incredulousness that the Christian world does not embrace the Book of Mormon (though I guess I’m not surprised, since the Book of Mormon prophecies of the same). For me, there is no greater testament to the divinity of the Son of God than the Book of Mormon. For a partial list of scriptures that affirm the centrality and importance of the Atonement, I might read the following:

Title Page
1 Nephi 8:10-12
1 Nephi 10:10-11
1 Nephi 11:13-24, 31
1 Nephi 19:8-10, 23
1 Nephi 21:10, 15, 16
2 Nephi 2 (esp. 7 and 8)
2 Nephi 4:31-34
2 Nephi 6:9
2 Nephi 7:7
2 Nephi 9 (esp. 5-8, 41)
2 Nephi 10:24
2 Nephi 11:4-7
2 Nephi 17:14
2 Nephi 19: 2, 3, 4, 6, 7
2 Nephi 25:19, 20, 23-27
2 Nephi 31:5-21
2 Nephi 33: 4, 6, 9-11
Jacob 1:7, 8
Jacob 4:4-18
Jacob 5:47
Jacob 7:11-12
Jarom 1:11
Omni 1:26
Mosiah 3-5 (esp. 3:5-11, 15-17, 19; 4:2-9; 5:1-8)
Mosiah 13:27-35
Mosiah 14:2-7
Mosiah 15
Mosiah 16:6-10
Mosiah 27:24-32
Alma 5:6-16, 19, 21, 26-27, 33, 48
Alma 7:3, 9-15
Alma 9:11, 26, 28
Alma 11:40-44
Alma 16:19
Alma 18:39-41
Alma 19:6, 13, 14, 29
Alma 21:7-9
Alma 22:12-18
Alma 24:10-11, 13, 23
Alma 25:15-16
Alma 30:39
Alma 31:31, 38
Alma 33:11-17, 22
Alma 34:8-16
Alma 36 (esp. 17-21)
Alma 38:8-9
Alma 39:15-19
Alma 42:14-24, 26-27 (esp. 23)
Helaman 5:12
Helaman 8:13-23
Helaman 14:11-17
3 Nephi 7:16
3 Nephi 9:14-22
3 Nephi 11-28 (esp. 11:11-15; 15:8-10; 22; 27:13-27)
Mormon 3:21
Mormon 5:14-15
Mormon 7:5-10
Mormon 9:12-14
Ether 3:1-20
Ether 12:4, 41
Moroni 4:3
Moroni 5:2
Moroni 7:22-48
Moroni 8:12, 22, 23
Moroni 9:22, 25, 26
Moroni 10:30-34

It is partly because I so dearly love these verses that Jennifer’s defection from the Church stings me so deeply. My study of the Book of Mormon has given both birth and wings to my testimony of the Savior—I cherish the knowledge the Book of Mormon gives me about Christ.

One final theological note: Mormon theology’s insistence on our giving our “all” does not detract from the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice. As I have already articulated, Jennifer specifically quoted “by grace we are saved, after all we can do” as a major reason she left the Church. Her argument was that Mormons think less of the Atonement because we believe our utmost is also necessary for us to gain salvation. Someone much smarter than me could write a full treatise on the interplay of grace and works in Mormon theology. For my purposes, however, suffice it to say that Christ has always made clear—in the Old and New Testament, in the Book of Mormon, and in modern scripture—that we must offer up a contrite heart if we are to be exalted. That is, nothing less than all we have to give will suffice.

While this commandment is demanding, however, it also actually reminds us of the Atonement’s vast power to save. For us, after all, “all” we can give will often be relatively little. Only perfection merits God’s presence, and all of us fall woefully short of that mark; only through the Atonement can any of us enter into the presence of God. Just as importantly, it will not matter, at the judgment day, how much our “all” was. For some, especially, this all will have been very little—circumstances, environment, genealogy, and weakness dictate that many of us fall even more short of the mark. At the judgment day, however, it will not matter how much our all was, as long as it was everything we had to give. The Atonement makes the objective sufficiency of our effort irrelevant—Christ, who has descended below everything we face—will know perfectly how hard we tried. And, in the end, it will be that—our effort, not the result—along with the perfection and infinity of His atonement that will ensure those who come unto to Christ and find perfection in Him a place in the Kingdom of God.

Published in: on August 1, 2006 at 5:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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