The Power to Exalt Us
One might appropriately wonder how the Atonement can be effective in the lives of mortals. Even though we seek to be worthy and to repent of our sins, in the end we are all, in one way or another, unprofitable servants (see Mosiah 2:21). Given our weakness and our recurring failings, how are we able to receive the many blessings of the Atonement in our lives? How are we able to receive of its cleansing powers, or peace, or succor, or freedom? How does the perfection and exaltation of an imperfect being come about?
Nephi gave the answer: "We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). This might have read, "We know that it is by grace that we are exalted, after all we can do." Some have misunderstood this scripture, supposing that the Atonement provides the cleansing power, while our works alone provide the perfecting power; thus, working hand in hand, exaltation is achieved. But such an interpretation is not correct. It is true that the Atonement provides the cleansing power. It is also true that works are a necessary ingredient of the perfecting process. But without the Atonement, without grace, without the power of Christ, all the works in the world would fall far short of perfecting even one human being. Works must be coupled with grace both to perfect and to cleanse a person unto exaltation. In other words, grace is not only necessary to cleanse us, but also to perfect us.
The LDS Bible Dictionary defines grace as a "divine means of help or strength" made possible through the Atonement. It then adds that grace is a means of "strength and assistance to do good works that [men] otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means." And finally it asserts that grace is "an enabling power" necessary to lift men above their weaknesses and shortcomings, so that they might "lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts."1 In essence, grace is a gift of divine power, made possible by the Atonement, that can transform a mere mortal with all his failings into a god with all his strengths—provided we have done "all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). That is exactly what Peter taught: "[Christ's] divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3; emphasis added).
The divine principle to be learned is this: that God will use his heavenly powers to exalt us, but only if we have done all within our power to accomplish that end. The brother of Jared learned this principle when he petitioned the Lord to light the Jaredite barges. The Lord could have instantaneously given him the solution. Instead, he responded: "What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels?" (Ether 2:23). With that divine challenge the brother of Jared devised and implemented an ingenious plan—he melted out of rock sixteen transparent stones that he took to the Lord, requesting the Lord to touch them, "that they may shine forth in darkness" (Ether 3:4). When the brother of Jared had done his best, the door to heavenly powers swung wide open.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead dramatically illustrates this same celestial law. The Savior approached the grave or cave where Lazarus had lain for four days. He instructed those who were nearby to remove the stone cover. Then in a loud voice he cried out, "Lazarus, come forth" (John 11:43), and the scriptures record that "he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin" (John 11:44). At that point Jesus commanded the onlookers to unbind him. One might ask, "Why didn't Jesus remove the stone with a show of power? Why didn't Jesus unwrap the revived corpse?" His response was a demonstration of the divine law of economy, namely, that we must do all we can, and when we have reached our limits, when we have asserted all our mental, moral, and spiritual energies, then the powers of heaven will intervene. Man could remove the stone and unwrap the corpse, so he must do it, but only the power of God could call the dead to life. Accordingly, it was only the latter event that was divinely dictated. It is this same principle that governs our exaltation.
When We Fall Short
There are certain occasions when our best efforts, as extraordinary as they may be, are simply inadequate. It is not simply a function of time and effort (meaning, if we had enough time and were willing to put forth the effort, we would eventually become gods); it is more than that. It is also a matter of capacity. Can we in and of ourselves, unaided by any artificial means, fly through the air? We may have the compelling urge to do so. We may jump off the cliff and attempt the enterprise with an unrelenting determination; we may have biceps of extraordinary proportion; we may rotate our arms with astounding speed; we may have a Ph.D. in aerodynamics—but we will fall just the same. If we desire to travel as God does, some external power must transform our physical body to one of celestial material.
Can we of our own accord acquire the wisdom of God? What if in the course of eternity we were to read every book, master every mathematical equation, and conquer every language? Would we then be God's intellectual equal? The answer is a resounding no! We would still be restricted to a finite mind, to a limited number of thoughts at a given moment. The Lord made reference to this disparity: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. . . . For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). King Benjamin echoed the same sentiments: "Believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend" (Mosiah 4:9). Sometime, somehow, somewhere, we must be "added upon." We must receive a divine endowment to be able to entertain multiple, even infinite thoughts, concurrently. Only then can our mind begin to become like God's.
We cannot become like God without such an endowment—in essence, a manifestation of grace. And that grace comes because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. That was the promise Enoch understood and expressed to God: "Thou hast made me, and given unto me a right to thy throne, and not of myself, but through thine own grace" (Moses 7:59).
To Become Like God
Our embrace of the Atonement opens up a new cache of spiritual powers that "add upon" and endow man with godly traits that he cannot generate from internal sources alone. It is then that the ultimate purpose of the Atonement is achieved—we become both "at one" with God (the redemptive quality) and "at one" like God (the exalting quality). That was the promise of John to the "sons of God," that "when he shall appear, we shall be like him" (1 John 3:2; emphasis added), not just with him.
Certain powers of the Atonement cleanse us and thus make us worthy to stand in God's presence and be at one with him. Such cleansing powers purge our souls and leave us innocent (meaning without sin), but innocence is not perfection. Innocence is the entrance to the straight and narrow path; perfection is the destination. A newborn baby is pure and innocent, but it is certainly not perfect in the sense of possessing all the powers of godliness. The Savior was pure and innocent at birth, but even he grew from grace to grace until he achieved the fullness of godhood. The scriptures record that the Savior "received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness" (D&C 93:13). Joseph F. Smith spoke of Christ's progressive journey: "Even Christ himself was not perfect at first; he . . . received not a fulness at the first, but increased in faith, knowledge, understanding and grace until he received a fulness."2
It is by grace that those enabling, endowing, exalting powers of the Atonement, provided measure upon measure and line upon line, transform a man into a god. The Savior bore record of this. He admonished us to listen to John's message on grace, so that we might come unto the Father in his name "and in due time receive of his fulness" (D&C 93:19). He then described how the fulness is achieved for each of us: "If you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace" (D&C 93:20). Line upon line, measure upon measure, grace upon grace we become one, as he and the Father are one. That is exactly what the Prophet Joseph taught: "You have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, . . . the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you . . . are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power."3
How Does a Mortal Receive Grace?
But how is this grace transferred to us? How does God transmit divine qualities and powers to a mere mortal? The medium for the infusion of godlike powers and enabling traits from a divine being to an ordinary man is the Holy Ghost. In a classic statement, Elder Parley P. Pratt describes its refining and perfecting power: "The gift of the Holy Ghost . . . quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands, and purifies all the natural passions and affections, and adapts them, by the gift of wisdom, to their lawful use. It inspires, develops, cultivates, and matures all the fine-toned sympathies, joys, tastes, kindred feelings, and affections of our nature. It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness, and charity. It develops beauty of person, form, and features. It tends to health, vigor, animation, and social feeling. It invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. It strengthens and gives tone to the nerves. In short, it is, as it were, marrow to the bone, joy to the heart, light to the eyes, music to the ears, and life to the whole being."4
All of these divine qualities, so eloquently expressed by Elder Pratt, are scripturally labeled "spiritual gifts" or "gifts of the Spirit." . . .
Moroni 10 is Moroni's concluding message, his "last lecture," to the generations of this dispensation. He saw our day with 20/20 foresight: "Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing" (Mormon 8:35). With that vision, what would be his final farewell to this generation he knew so intimately? What counsel could he give them that would help them, save them, even exalt them? Moroni 10 is the answer. Moroni spells out certain gifts of the Spirit, and then concludes with the spiritual formula that will make us like God:
"I would exhort you that ye would come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift [meaning the gifts of the Spirit and the other blessings of the Atonement]. . . .
"Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ. . . .
"And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot" (Moroni 10:30, 32, 33; emphasis added).
Moroni 10 is the Book of Mormon's concluding doctrinal dissertation. It defines the relationship among grace, gifts, and godhood. The grace that flows from the Savior's atoning sacrifice opens the gate to the divine road, the gifts are the vehicle, and godhood is the destination. By the grace of God the gifts come, and with the acquisition of the gifts, godhood emerges.
Lead image from Getty Images
^1. LDS Bible Dictionary, 697.
^2. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 68.
^3. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 346-47.
^4. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology and a Voice of Warning, 61.
^5. Pratt, Orson Pratt's Works, 1:96-97; emphasis added.
^6. McConkie, New Witness, 370, 371. Orson Pratt taught the same: "We here give [honest inquirers of truth] an infallible sign by which they may always know the kingdom of God from all other kingdoms. Wherever the miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost are enjoyed, there the kingdom of God exists[;] wherever these gifts are not enjoyed, there the kingdom does not exist" (Pratt, Orson Pratt's Works, 1:76).
^7. McConkie, New Witness, 270.
^8. Ashton, Measure of Our Hearts, 17.
With The Infinite Atonement, Brother Tad R. Callister offers us what may be the most comprehensive, yet understandable, treatment of the Atonement in our day. He thoughtfully probes the infinite scope of this "great and last sacrifice," describing its power and breadth and explaining how it redeems us all.
Using the scriptures and the words of the prophets, Brother Callister explores the Savior's divinity and the depth of his love for mankind. He explains the blessings that flow from the Atonement, providing insight into the resurrection, repentance, and the gifts of peace, motivation, freedom, grace, and exaltation. He explains the relationship of justice and mercy and the importance of ordinances. Through discussing the effects of the fall of Adam and our individual sins, he reminds us in a powerful way of the incalculable debt of gratitude we owe Christ for his unparalleled offering.
"An attempt to master this doctrine requires an immersion of all our senses, all our feelings, and all our intellect," Brother Callister writes, "Given the opportunity, the Atonement will invade each of the human passions and faculties. . . . The Atonement is not a doctrine that lends itself to some singular approach, like a universal formula. It must be felt, not just 'figured; internalized, not just analyzed. . . . The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the most supernal, mind-expanding, passionate doctrine this world or universe will ever know."
With clarity, testimony, and understanding, The Infinite Atonement teaches us rich and wonderful truths about this "doctrine of doctrines." and elevates our spirits as we contemplate the perfect love of Him who gave all that we might receive all.