The following article originally ran on LDS Living in 2016.
Next to Jesus the Christ by Elder James E. Talmage, one of the best books about Christ I’ve ever read is Elder Tad R. Callister’s The Infinite Atonement. And while you can only absorb the full power of these inspired books by reading them from cover to cover, sometimes there simply isn’t time. So here are some of the most important and interesting ideas from The Infinite Atonement to give you a taste of the spiritual power it contains.
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1. We don’t think about or understand the Atonement enough.
Elder Callister starts off by explaining that, though we have all grown up learning about the Atonement, many of us aren’t even sure how Latter-day Saint beliefs about the Atonement are different from the rest of the world. He goes on to say:
“Satan has been successful in diverting much of the Christian world’s attention from the one doctrine that can save us, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, to the ancillary doctrines that have meaning only because they draw their sustenance from this redeeming event. Like a skilled magician, Satan’s every move is to divert our attention and dilute our focus from the primary object at hand, namely Christ’s atoning sacrifice, in hopes we will turn exclusively to doctrines of secondary and far lesser import” (page 15).
So what is the Atonement, and why was the Fall of Adam and Eve so significant, even vital? Elder Callister reminds us that the three purposes of the Atonement are 1) to restore all that was lost in physical and spiritual death, 2) to provide the opportunity to repent and overcome spiritual death, and 3) to allow us the potential to become a god or goddess.
However, he also reminds us that the Fall is an important part of the Atonement:
“It is difficult to fully understand why God gave seemingly conflicting commands in the Garden. Some people feel that the ‘command’ not to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was more a warning than a commandment, and thus, Adam and Eve purposefully ‘disobeyed’ a lower law in order to fulfill a higher one.
“The scriptures suggest, however, that Eve was at least partially deceived. This ‘conflict’ of commandments seemed to be a necessary part of the grand plan, so that man would not later claim that God forced him to accept the awesome responsibility of mortality. Man had already made the decision to accept earth-life in premortal times, but that was done without the vantage point of terrestrial glasses. Now, Adam and Eve, as the designated representatives of the human race, would confirm that decision from their earthly abode. After their fall, they could not blame God for their mortal travails. He had not mandated their choice. Rather, in apparent opposition to God’s command, they and they alone, had chosen to proceed. Perhaps in this way God brought ‘about his eternal purposes’ for he said ‘[there] must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life' (2 Nephi 2:15)’” (page 36).
Without the Fall, there would be no Atonement, and when we don’t consider the Atonement seriously, we are missing the point of mortality:
“Following one of [Handel’s] performances, a friend remarked that he had been entertained. Handel replied, ‘I should be sorry if I only entertain them. I wish to make them better.’ Likewise, the Savior is anxious that the Atonement make us better. He must be gravely disappointed if people merely acknowledge his Atonement as a magnificent sacrifice to be viewed in awe, but with no thought of change. The atoning sacrifice was designed to motivate us, to draw us unto him, to lift us to higher ground, and ultimately to assist us in becoming as he is” (page 218).
2. The Atonement was infinite in more ways than one.
A significant part of Elder Callister’s book describes the meaning and the word “infinite,” especially as it is used with the word “Atonement.” He explains that the Atonement is infinite in eight specific ways:
“First, as Elder Maxwell has suggested, it is ‘infinite in the divineness of the one sacrificed.’ The title of that stirring song, ‘O Divine Redeemer,’ is an apt reminder that he who brought about the Atonement is the consummate expression of godliness.
“Second, it is infinite in power. The Savior went from grace to grace until he ‘received all power, both in heaven and on earth’ (D&C 93:17).
“Third, the Atonement is infinite in time. It applies retroactively and prospectively through time immemorial.
“Fourth, it is infinite in coverage. It applies to all God’s creations and all forms of life thereon. Elder Maxwell called it ‘infinite . . . in the comprehensiveness of its coverage.’
“Fifth, it is infinite in depth. It is infinite not only in who it covers, but in what it covers. ‘The Son of Man hath descended below them all’ (D&C 122:8).
“Sixth, it is infinite in the degree of suffering endured by the Redeemer. It was that suffering that caused ‘even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore’ (D&C 19:18).
“Seventh, it is infinite in love. The words of the hymn ‘He Died! The Great Redeemer Died’ are a powerful reminder of his boundless love: 'Here’s love and grief beyond degree; The Lord of glory died for men.'
“Eighth, it is infinite in the blessings it bestows. The blessings of the Atonement extend far beyond its well-known triumph over physical and spiritual death. Some of these blessings overlap; some complement and supplement each other; but in the aggregate the effect of this event so blesses our lives in a multiplicity of ways, both known and yet to be discovered, that it might appropriately be said to be infinite in its blessing nature” (page 60).
3. The Atonement was a covenant Christ made.
This is an idea rarely discussed in Sunday School, but Elder Callister explains that Christ didn’t just agree to accomplish the Atonement—He made a covenant to do so:
“In the premortal council the Savior covenanted with the Father to perform the Atonement. . . Based on that pledge or covenant we had faith in him. Based on that covenant the Father could promise remission of sins prior to the atoning sacrifice because he “knew” his Son would not fail. The issue was not that he could not break his covenant, but rather, that he would not” (page 74).
He goes on to emphasize that:
“The Savior observed every spiritual law with undeviating exactness apparently because of his compliance with each one, he received power upon power until he acquired the attributes of God, even in premortal ties. Such progress was a natural consequence of his exacting compliance. His godhood thus seemed to result not from a creation of these laws, but rather from compliance with them” (page 301).
If Christ had not fulfilled this covenant, there would be no one who could comprehend our pain and trials. But because He has, there is always someone who does.
“What weight is thrown on the scales of pain when calculating the hurt of innumerable patients in countless hospitals? Now, add to that the loneliness of the elderly who are forgotten in the rest homes of society, desperately yearning for a card, a visit, a call—just some recognition from the outside world.
"Keep on adding the hurt of hungry children, the suffering caused by famine, drought, and pestilence. Pile on the heartache of parents who tearfully plead on a daily basis for a wayward son or daughter to come back home. Factor in the trauma of every divorce and the tragedy of every abortion.
"Add the remorse that comes with each child lost in the dawn of life, each spouse taken in the prime of marriage. Compound that with the misery of overflowing prisons, bulging halfway houses and institutions for the mentally disadvantaged. Multiply all this by century after century of history, and creation after creation without end. Such is but an awful glimpse of the Savior’s load.
"Who can bear such a burden or scale such a mountain as this? No one, absolutely no one, save Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of us all” (page 105).
4. Christ overcame temptation.
Most of us are familiar with the story of Christ being tempted by Satan, but how was His temptation different or similar to the temptation we ourselves face today? Elder Callister clarifies:
“Do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting here that Jesus in any way indulged in unclean thoughts, for that would be sin, and he indulged nothing sinful. I do not believe that he ‘struggled’ or ‘wrestled’ with temptations.
"My only point is that he was as vulnerable to suggestions and impulses coming into his mind from his mortal nature, a nature inherited from his mortal mother, as any of us. He simply paid no attention to those suggestions, and he immediately put them out of his mind. The ability of the flesh to suggest, to entice, was the same for him as it is for us, but unlike the rest of us, he never responded to it. He didn’t ponder, deliberate, or entertain the sinful options even as theoretical possibilities—‘he gave no heed unto them’” (page 107).
Later on, he describes again the Savior’s ability to comfort and empathize with each of us, because of the Atonement.
“The Savior was no ivory-tower observer, no behind-the-lines captain. He was no spectator, no ‘high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). . . .
"The Savior was a participant, a player, who not only understood our plight intellectually, but who felt our wounds because they became his wounds. He had firsthand, ‘in the trenches,’ experience. He knew ‘according to the flesh, how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). He could comfort with empathy, not just sympathy, all ‘those that are cast down’ (2 Corinthians 7:6)’” (pg 208).
5. The Atonement was absolutely necessary.
In the course of this book, Elder Callister presents a few suggested reasons for why the Atonement might have been a requirement.
“Perhaps it was necessary to comply with some immutable law (i.e., one of those laws that has always existed and remains unchanged throughout eternity). Or perhaps it was necessary because it was dictated by God’s perfect attributes,” he says, then goes on to comment on a suggested reason given by Elder B.H. Roberts, explaining that “Elder Roberts suggests the improbability of God having put his Son through such excruciating pain if an easier means were available. Such a conclusion strongly suggests there was no equally viable alternative, or God would have chosen it and thus spared the Shepherd without sacrificing the sheep.”
And though a few other possibilities are discussed, Elder Callister concludes his work with a powerful testimony of this most sacred of events.
“One does not speak lightly of the Atonement or casually express his appreciation. It is the most sacred and sublime event in eternity. It deserves our most intense thoughts, our most profound feelings, and our noblest deeds. One speaks of it in reverential tones; one contemplates it in awe; one learns of it in solemnity. This event stands alone, now and throughout eternity. . . .
“I now add my testimony to the many who have preceded me that his sacrifice was indeed an infinite and eternal Atonement” (pages 334-335).
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About the size of a cell phone, and with text flowing from the top page to the bottom page, these books can be read with one hand. On thin but durable paper, these books are slim and easy to pack or read on the go.
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.