Being Easter recently, I heard the phrase “Jesus died for our sins” in people’s talks, and today, two people shared their testimonies in fast and testimony meeting that they knew that “Jesus died to save us from our sins”. I always wonder when I hear that sort of phrase; either people are repeating something by rote and aren’t really paying attention to the individual words anymore, but just the sense of them; or they really don’t understand what Jesus actually did or what it means. Now, I’m sure that anyone reading this blog does understand these things better than this, but I want to explain it clearly just so I can feel like I’m doing something about such a fundamental misunderstanding. And because otherwise, I might just stand up next time and say “um, no, no – actually He didn’t.” That wouldn’t be good.
So if Jesus didn’t so much die for our sins, what did He do? Well, He did at least two things: He suffered for our sins (but I always think that’s an awkward way to phrase it), and He died and was resurrected. Through His death and resurrection, the Saviour triumphed over death, which paved the way for our resurrection – the resurrection of all mankind. Amulek explained this very clearly to Zeezrom, looking forward from their time to the time of Christ:
Now, there is a death which is called a temporal death; and the death of Christ shall loose the bands of this temporal death, that all shall be raised from this temporal death.
The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form… and we shall be brought to stand before God, knowing even as we know now, and having a bright recollection of all our guilt.
Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous; and… everything shall be restored to its perfect frame…, and shall be brought and arraigned before the bar of Christ the Son, and God the Father, and the Holy Spirit…, to be judged according to their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil. (Alma 11: 42-44)
So Christ’s death and resurrection enable all of us to also be resurrected – for the purpose of standing before God to be judged, and given our reward (whatever that is for each of us). That is what Christ died for. To give us the opportunity for eternal life, which we can only experience with a resurrected body and through God’s judgement of our hearts and minds.
The other essential part of Christ’s atonement was His spiritual suffering. While this included physical pain and suffering, that was a manifestation of the spiritual, emotional and mental anguish of vicariously experiencing our guilt, sins, weaknesses and the consequences of others’ sins and weaknesses upon us. This is the crux of Jesus’ atonement; this is what He did “for our sins” – he experienced the pain of all of them, and everything connected to them. Because of this profoundly compassionate and loving act, the Saviour is the “Author of our salvation”; He alone has the power to heal us completely, inside and out. This act provides the possibility of both repentance and forgiveness: because He has suffered “once for all [of us]”, no pain, no sorrow, no awful or unfortunate thing in this life need drive us to misery or otherwise have power over us. Everything can be made right, even though wicked acts continue to be done in the world; our souls can be knit together in wholeness through the grace that comes from this act and which Christ extends to us on conditions of repentance – a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
This is the glorious and wonderful Good News and the truth about what Christ has done for us. Its magnificence and depth is why I get frustrated and disappointed by people who have been taught all of this and yet haven’t taken it in. Because it’s so much more than “he died for our sins” – it’s so much more excellent than that – and without understanding these things about it, how can a person know how to extend forgiveness or repent? How can they teach it to their children, or pray for help when what they need is grace, but they don’t know what to ask for or why?
My brother pointed out to me that the phrase, “died for our sins”, is in fact scriptural. It’s found in 1 Corinthians 15:3 and Doctrine & Covenants 54:1. Poor research by me. But I still feel that using this phrase exclusively can be misleading to the person who uses it and those who hear it. We really do need to understand the Atonement as far as we are able – as much as has been revealed. Stopping at a simplistic level is unhelpful and lacks the greater power that further knowledge lends. Thankfully, we have an enormous amount of information available, along with prayer and experience, leading us onward.