Brad Wilcox: 8 Things the Atonement Is Not

As much as we study Christ’s Atonement, we can never comprehend it entirely. But as we try to understand what it is—and isn’t—we can come to understand how it applies more fully in our everyday lives.

All my life I thought Big Ben was a famous clock tower in London. I was absolutely sure of it and had even taught that fact to others. Then I went to London and found out that Big Ben is actually the nickname of the largest bell inside the tower, which is now called the Elizabeth Tower in honor of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. And if we are going to get picky, it’s not even officially in London, but rather in Westminster. In that moment, the bell and the tower had not changed, but my understanding certainly did.

In the same way, we sometimes go through our entire lives thinking we understand the Atonement—the central doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and then suddenly we have an experience that helps us see it in a new light. The doctrine has not changed, but our understanding has deepened. These moments of insight help us appreciate and value the Atonement more and more. Here are a few “Big Ben” realizations about the Atonement that have made a difference to me:

1. The Atonement is not just about immortality and eternal life but about not having one without the other. 

Living forever may not be such a great gift without the possibility of living with God and loved ones. When my daughter Whitney was in elementary school, she read Tuck Everlasting—a wonderful novel that tells the story of a fictional family finding the fountain of youth, drinking, and then discovering that living forever is not all it’s cracked up to be. 

One night while I was putting Whitney to bed, she asked, “Dad, you know how you say because of Jesus we will live forever? Well what if I don’t want to?” What joy I felt as I was able to testify to my young daughter that immortality is only part of Jesus’ great gift. It is coupled with the possibility of eternal families and eternal purpose.

2. The Atonement is not just about sins but also struggles. 

Even though many of our challenges do not make us unworthy, they can still pull us from God. How often do we raise angry fists toward heaven and cry, “Why me?” instead of humbly reaching out to God and Christ? 

Christ descended below all things. This includes our mistakes, loneliness, and afflictions. Christ’s Atonement qualifies Him to be able to succor us in desperate moments because He has literally felt our pains.

3. The Atonement is not just about receiving but also giving.

Great perspective awaits those who are willing to see that as we choose to accept and use this gift, we also bring joy and glory to God. Sometimes we mistakenly believe God and Jesus already have everything, but they don’t have you or me until we consciously give ourselves to them. 

As we freely offer our hearts and wills, we can bring Them great joy. I find purpose and satisfaction in knowing that in this small and simple way, I have something to give Them.

Without us, the blessed emblems of the sacrament would simply sit in trays each Sunday. It is up to us to pick them up and internalize them. As we do so, we are not just receiving, we are also giving.

4. The Atonement is not just about earning but also learning.

Our faith, repentance, covenants, and efforts to receive the Holy Ghost and endure to the end are not works performed to earn salvation. Rather, they are how Christ is transforming us. He asks us to follow Him and keep His commandments, not to earn our way to heaven but to become more heavenly.

We chose to enter this mortal school because we knew that through the Atonement, not only could we go home but we could also be better for having come. 

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