I’ve noticed that many people consider the Atonement as Christ’s time on the cross.
We can only begin to imagine his agony. However, we can easily comprehend the concept that He did indeed suffer greatly for our sins while on the cross. It was a physical pain the likes of which makes us all shudder.
But, the cross was actually the completion of his sacrifice; the completion of the Atonement. I don’t mean to minimize His suffering or his willingness to make this sacrifice. I know He endured great agony. And he did it for us.
While in the Garden of Gethsemane, however, His agony was so much more than we can ever understand. It’s a kind of pain that is beyond our comprehension.
And this is where the most important element of the Atonement actually took place. As I said before, giving up his life was the completion of the Atonement.
The Garden of Gethsemane was where he actually paid the price for our sins. I think many people concentrate on his time spent on the cross as the Atonement because it is easier to relate to his pain and suffering while there.
The pain the Savior suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane is nearly unfathomable.
In Luke 22 we read,
44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, the Savior actually took upon himself the sins of the world. He made it possible for us to return to our Father in Heaven, clean and pure, if only we will repent of our sins. He has taken on the punishment for our sins, so that we don’t have to–again, if we repent and change our lives.
In Gospel Principles, we read:
When the plan for our salvation was presented to us in the premortal spirit world, we were so happy that we shouted for joy (see Job 38:7).
We understood that we would have to leave our heavenly home for a time. We would not live in the presence of our Heavenly Father. While we were away from Him, all of us would sin and some of us would lose our way. Our Heavenly Father knew and loved each one of us. He knew we would need help, so He planned a way to help us.
We needed a Savior to pay for our sins and teach us how to return to our Heavenly Father. Our Father said, “Whom shall I send?” (Abraham 3:27). Jesus Christ, who was called Jehovah, said, “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27; see also Moses 4:1–4).
Jesus was willing to come to the earth, give His life for us, and take upon Himself our sins. He, like our Heavenly Father, wanted us to choose whether we would obey Heavenly Father’s commandments. He knew we must be free to choose in order to prove ourselves worthy of exaltation. Jesus said, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2).
By eternal law, mercy cannot be extended unless there be one who is both willing and able to assume our debt and pay the price and arrange the terms for our redemption.
You’re not alone.
Many have a hard time comprehending why there needed to be an Atonement.
The best way to describe what the Savior has done for us is through this story, an analogy shared by Elder Boyd K. Packer.
Jesus Christ, our Mediator, pays the price that we are not able to pay so we can return to live with our Heavenly Father.
Let me tell you a story—a parable.
There once was a man who wanted something very much. It seemed more important than anything else in his life. In order for him to have his desire, he incurred [took on] a great debt.
He had been warned about going into that much debt and particularly about his creditor, the one who lent the money. But it seemed so important for him to have what he wanted right now. He was sure he could pay for it later.
So he signed a contract. He would pay it off some time along the way. He didn’t worry too much about it, for the due date seemed such a long time away. He had what he wanted now, and that was what seemed important.
The creditor was always somewhere in the back of his mind, and he made token [small] payments now and again, thinking somehow that the day of reckoning [the day he had to repay all the money] would never really come.
But as it always does, the day came and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full.
Only then did he realize that his creditor had not only the power to repossess [take away] all that he owned but also the power to cast him into prison as well.
“I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so,” he confessed.
“Then,” said the creditor, “we will take your possessions, and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced.”
“Can you not extend the time or forgive the debt?” the debtor begged. “Arrange some way for me to keep what I have and not go to prison. Surely you believe in mercy? Will you not show mercy?”
The creditor replied, “Mercy is always so one-sided. It would serve only you. If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand. Do you believe in justice?”
“I believed in justice when I signed the contract,” the debtor said. “It was on my side then, for I thought it would protect me. I did not need mercy then nor think I should need it ever.”
“It is justice that demands that you pay the contract or suffer the penalty,” the creditor replied. “That is the law. You have agreed to it, and that is the way it must be. Mercy cannot rob justice.”
There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail [win] except at the expense of the other.
“If you do not forgive the debt, there will be no mercy,” the debtor pleaded.
“If I do, there will be no justice,” was the reply.
Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another.
Is there no way for justice to be fully served and mercy also?
There is a way!
The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time.
The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer: “I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison.”
As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, “You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just.”
And so the creditor agreed.
The mediator turned then to the debtor. “If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?”
“Oh yes, yes,” cried the debtor. “You save me from prison and show mercy to me.”
“Then,” said the benefactor [one who helps], “you will pay the debt to me, and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison.”
And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken. The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share and mercy was fully satisfied.
Our Mediator is Jesus Christ.
Each of us lives on a kind of spiritual credit, a debt. One day the account will be closed, a settlement demanded. However casually we may view it now, when that day comes and the foreclosure is imminent [near], we will look around in restless agony for someone, anyone, to help us.
And by eternal law, mercy cannot be extended save there be one who is both willing and able to assume our debt and pay the price and arrange the terms for our redemption.
Unless there is a mediator, unless we have a friend, the full weight of justice must fall on us. The full payment for every transgression, however minor or however deep, will be exacted [taken] from us to the uttermost.
But know this: Truth, glorious truth, proclaims there is such a Mediator. “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Through Him mercy can be fully extended to each of us without offending the eternal law of justice.
The extension of mercy will not be automatic. It will be through covenant with Him. It will be on His terms, His generous terms, which include, as an absolute essential, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.
All mankind can be protected by the law of justice, and at once each of us individually may be extended the redeeming and healing blessing of mercy.
I hope that story helped you to understand the need for an Atonement. It gives me clarity concerning this very important facet of the gospel.
May we each make use of Christ’s gift to us, the Atonement, on a daily basis.