Is it possible for there to be people for which the atoning sacrifice of Christ cannot help? This may seem like a no-brainer, but there are actually two answers to this question, both of which are correct. The atonement made by Christ for our sins operates under eternal law, just like every other part of God’s plan of salvation. This article discusses both the extent of and the limitations of the atonement.
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This question came up in a recent Sunday School class. The person posing the question was asking, on the surface, if there was anyone who could sin so badly as to be beyond the reach of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. The answer given was that, barring the one sin that is unforgivable, there is no such thing as a sin the atonement can’t eventually cleanse. This set me thinking. The conclusion I finally arrived at is that there are two categories that have to be kept in mind when referring to Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The first is the power of that sacrifice. The second is our part in accepting that sacrifice.
The power of the atonement
It is important to state up front that the central doctrine of the entire plan of salvation is the atoning sacrifice made by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. There is no doctrine that could save us if the atonement of Christ was absent. It is the key to all other covenants, doctrines, and hopes. Without the doctrine of the atonement there is no salvation possible for mankind. This doctrine pervades, and is a part of all other doctrines found in scripture and the words of all the prophets. It truly is our only hope from an eternity of damnation.
The doctrine of the atonement isn’t just about being able to repent. Part of the sacrifice Jesus made to bring about the efficacy of the atoning sacrifice was to die and be resurrected. That part of the sacrifice was a free gift to all of God’s children. We earned (if you will) that gift in our premortal life by choosing to stand by God in the Grand Council in Heaven and support God’s plan of salvation. We kept our first estate, and the promise was that by keeping our first estate we would be added upon, which means we will receive a resurrected, glorified body (Abraham 3:26).
26 And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.
This is why we say that the body we receive at the resurrection is a free gift to all mankind. All those who kept their first estate were promised, that as part of Christ’s work as our Savior, we would all receive this reward as part of our righteousness in our first estate. What we do, and how we behave in this, our second estate – mortality – doesn’t change what was promised to us in our first estate. This is why even the most vile sinners in this life will receive a glorified resurrected body. This is what we are referring to when we say that salvation – resurrection from the dead – is free to all of humanity.
A resurrected body may be the promised end result for all of humanity, but eternal glory is not. In the verse quoted above it specifically states that we have to keep our second estate as well in order to receive the reward of eternal glory, which is to live with God and Christ and be like them forever. This is where Christ’s suffering for our sins comes fully into play.
In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus suffered for the sins of all mankind. Those who refuse his gift, which consists of the opportunity to be forgiven of our sins, will have to do their own suffering, just as Jesus suffered. But God cannot, according to his own laws, punish a person for a crime they didn’t know anything about. Here is a passage from Alma 42 that sums up the whole relationship between mercy and justice and how we will be judged at the last day (Alma 42:18–22).
18 Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.
19 Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should die—would he be afraid he would die if he should murder?
20 And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin.
21 And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?
22 But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
Remember that it is God, our Father who must uphold justice in the plan of salvation. It is Jesus who offers us God’s mercy, which is possible only because he has personally satisfied all the demands of our Father’s justice. But if we refuse the mercy Jesus offers us we automatically subject ourselves to the demands of our Father’s justice. There is no other option. We either accept Christ’s mercy or we accept God’s justice. That is our choice. Our only choice. That is why the scriptures teach us that according to the plan of salvation we are free to choose either (one or the other) eternal death or eternal life. God’s justice will require eternal separation from him (eternal death). Christ’s mercy, which is offered through his atoning sacrifice, grants us eternal life – living in the presence of God.
The extent of what can be forgiven
As already mentioned, there is only one sin that is unforgivable, and only a handful of people can qualify for that sin. Most of us will never have to worry about even being able to commit the unpardonable sin. We simple will never know enough in this life to be able to sin that greatly. Christ’s atoning sacrifice had to be able to cover any and all sin we are capable of committing or there would be people who would fall outside of his ability to save us. In that sense then there really is no sin he cannot forgive.
So what about deliberate murder? Can that be forgiven? The answer has to be yes. If it couldn’t be forgiven then it would be an unpardonable sin, and we already know there is only one of those. But does that mean a murderer can go to the Celestial kingdom? We know, at least in the case of King David in the Old Testament, that even though he looked forward to the day his sins would be forgiven him, the Lord has told us directly that his sins have prevented him from being able to obtain the highest kingdom. In Doctrine and Covenants 132:29 we read the Lord’s declaration about King David.
39 David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord.
What we need to look at now though, is the question as to what can be forgiven. The scriptures are clear that anyone who comes to Christ with a sincere heart, wanting to repent and be forgiven can be forgiven for their sins. This is the power of the atoning sacrifice itself. From Christ’s vantage point we can, and should, bring every sin to him so he can forgive us and change us to become more like him. This is the process of repentance. Any and all sins welcome. No limits.
Our part in His sacrifice
This brings us to our second category – our part in what is done with his atonement for our sins. We see that forgiveness is available to all for any and all sins that we are willing to bring to Christ so he can extend mercy (forgiveness) to us. If this is the case then why has the Lord had to cleanse the earth with the flood, wipe out places like Sodom and Gomorrah, and many other civilizations? Why the promises of extinction to the Jaredites, the Nephites, and to us? If Christ can offer us mercy and forgive our sins then why tell us that he will wipe us from the map if we don’t follow him?
The atonement is governed by the laws of agency. God can force no one to obey his commandments. Our moral agency is always in force, and kept in tact by God’s laws until the day of judgment. Then, and only then, will justice supersede our agency and impose the laws of justice for anything that hasn’t yet been forgiven by the laws of mercy. In this regard our offer of mercy from Christ is a limited-time offer. When the judgment day arrives, asking for mercy will be everlastingly too late. By then the day of our repenting is past.
Speaking of our days of repenting, it is possible to get beyond the ability to repent while still in this life. This is what caused the need for the great flood, the destruction of Sodom, and the death of the Jaredites and Nephites. In all these instances the people had sinned to the point that they were “ripe” for destruction. What happens to create this inability to repent? What brings a person or a society to the point of being ripe for destruction?
Ripe for destruction
In 1 Nephi 17:35 we are told this:
35 Behold, the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God. But behold, this people had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity; and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them; and the Lord did curse the land against them, and bless it unto our fathers; yea, he did curse it against them unto their destruction, and he did bless it unto our fathers unto their obtaining power over it.
The reason the Lord had to leave the children of Israel in bondage for four hundred years was because they couldn’t replace the Amorites (the people who lived in the Promised Land) until the people had become fully ripe in their iniquities.
13 And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;
16 But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.
Nephi explains that had the Amorites been righteous they would have been just as favored before God as the children of Israel. But the Lord has decreed that when anyone or any people become ripe in iniquity they will be destroyed.
This brings up two questions. Can’t these people be forgiven by Christ and become righteous, and hence blessed of God? What does it mean to become ripened in iniquity? The first question is an easy answer. Anyone and everyone can come to Christ and receive forgiveness of sin. But that forgiveness is based on the sincerity of the person seeking to be forgiven. They must come to Christ with humility, desiring to be released from their burden of sin. This is an absolute must.
Our agency cannot be impinged upon. God cannot forgive us of sins for which we have no desire of relief. If we want to wallow in our sins, and be buffeted and led by Satan, that is our choice. At any time we can turn (repent) and come to God, but the longer we persist in our wickedness, the harder it is to make that decision to turn to God. Becoming ripe in our iniquities takes time. It doesn’t happen over night.
For a person or a people to become ripe in iniquity they must actively pursue their wickedness, taking delight in all manner of perversions and wicked practices. These people, when fully ripe have pushed the influence of the Holy Spirit out of their lives to the point that they can no longer be touched by the tender feelings God grants us through the Holy Ghost. We refer to these people as being “past feeling.” At the end of the Nephite nation Mormon writes to his son Moroni in Moroni 9:18–21 and describes briefly the spiritual and physical state of the Nephite nation. They had openly rebelled against the light and knowledge they had received from God, and were now ripe in their iniquity. This is what being ripe in iniquity looks like.
18 O the depravity of my people! They are without order and without mercy. Behold, I am but a man, and I have but the strength of a man, and I cannot any longer enforce my commands.
19 And they have become strong in their perversion; and they are alike brutal, sparing none, neither old nor young; and they delight in everything save that which is good; and the suffering of our women and our children upon all the face of this land doth exceed everything; yea, tongue cannot tell, neither can it be written.
20 And now, my son, I dwell no longer upon this horrible scene. Behold, thou knowest the wickedness of this people; thou knowest that they are without principle, and past feeling; and their wickedness doth exceed that of the Lamanites.
21 Behold, my son, I cannot recommend them unto God lest he should smite me.
If there was ever a perfect description of the character of Satan, the polar opposite of Christ, this passage is it. To become ripe in iniquity is to persist in sin, deliberately, knowingly, and to refuse the invitation to return to Christ. Eventually the conscience becomes so seared by the evils done that the person or people can no longer recognize the difference between right and wrong, except that, like Satan, their master, they are enraged by anything that smacks of goodness. They seek and pursue evil at all times. This was the condition of the people in Noah’s day, in Sodom and Gomorrah, and with every people who is destroyed by God. This will be our fate if we, as a country ever become wicked enough.
Can the atoning sacrifice of Christ save even those who are ripening in iniquity? The answer is yes/no. Yes, his atonement has the capacity to save them. Their repentance will be sore, and most difficult, but it can be done. But no, even Christ himself cannot save someone who has used their agency to choose evil over good, Satan over God. The Lord allows us to pursue our own path in mortality, up to a point. Once we have proven that we are beyond the ability to be saved, because we have so completely rejected the light that comes from God then there is no point any longer to being allowed to remain in mortality, for we have made our choice.
The children being raised in such a society have no chance at all to be redeemed, because they see and experience wickedness all the days of their lives. There is no fairness in this at all. So the Lord brings them home. How it happens is immaterial, since we are all eternal creatures. No harm done to the body in mortality can permanently scar the soul, which is eternal. So whether by flood, fire and brimstone, plague, or war, it doesn’t matter how he calls us home. Often it is the wicked who punish the more wicked, but sometimes, as in the case of the children of Israel, it was the more righteous who were commanded to punish the wicked who had become ripe in their iniquity.
The atonement is infinite in its capacity to forgive, but there are laws that limit what and who can be forgiven. In order for the sin to be forgiven the person must be sincere and desire forgiveness. But if we are wallowing in our sins and have no desire for forgiveness, the Savior’s hands are tied. He cannot forgive that which lays outside the bounds of his mercy and grace. For those who choose to live outside the bounds of Christ’s grace, they are choosing damnation, choosing to be cut off from the presence of God, choosing a kingdom less than the Celestial kingdom.
God’s love still rewards them with glory based on their choices in their first estate, combined with their choices in their second estate. They will still be resurrected and have an eternal physical body and never die. But only those who turn (repent) and seek Christ’s grace, his mercy, will have the opportunity to have glory added upon them forever. Only those who choose to forsake sin for the joys and happiness of righteous living will be exalted and become like God and Christ in the eternities.