The Vicarious Atonement: A Proclamation to Latter-day Saints

Posted: January 23, 2021 in Michael Flournoy, Mormon Studies

“Descent from the Cross” (1634) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin;
that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”

2 Corinthians 5:21 KJV

by Michael Flournoy
Have you ever talked with Evangelicals and become the victim of aggressive preaching? Perhaps they went so far as to attack your faith and regurgitated a hundred reasons why you aren’t a Christian. You may have been accused of worshiping Joseph Smith and participating in a cult.

I’ve been in that situation a hundred times as an LDS missionary, and later while defending the faith online. I’m familiar with the bad taste it leaves in your mouth and the knot that forms in the stomach. You’re left knowing nothing of Evangelical beliefs, except they don’t seem to like Mormons very much.

In 2015, I began a serious study on the topic of grace. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Within a year my convictions shifted and I found myself embracing the Evangelical position. I came to realize there are two kinds of gospels. One gospel teaches that we must cut all the sin out of our lives to become worthy. The other is about putting something on, namely, the righteousness of Christ. This gospel says that we can be saved despite our sins.

I discovered this second gospel, which I call the gospel of imputation, all over The Book of Mormon. The Bible also testified of its truthfulness. In this article, I’ll be explaining the Evangelical position using LDS scripture and language. As an added bonus, I’ll avoid the usual accusations and name-calling.

The main difference in our soteriology is Evangelicals believe in only one temple. This temple only needed to be used once, and it transferred all the saving ordinances to everyone who believes in Christ. That temple was the cross.

The Gospel Of Amputation
Growing up as a seventh-generation Latter-day Saint, I believed I needed to keep the commandments perfectly. If I sinned, I needed to repent and stop doing them. In essence, I needed to amputate the sinful behavior from my life. After all, Jesus commanded us to be perfect in Matthew 5:48.

I knew no unclean thing could enter God’s kingdom (3 Nephi 27:19). In fact, The Book of Mormon stated that God could not save us in our sins (Alma 11:37), nor could He look upon sin with allowance (Alma 45:16). That meant if I went to Judgment Day with sin, I would be cast out. Even my sins of omission had to stop. 2 Nephi 25:23 said we were saved by grace “after all we [could] do.” Moroni 10:32 said grace was sufficient after we denied ourselves of all ungodliness. After all, doesn’t James 2:10 (KJV) say, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all”?

The Book of Mormon made it clear that God wouldn’t be impressed if my spiritual report card was a B+. James 2:10 said that a score of B+ was impossible. If I had one red mark, my score would become an F. Unfortunately for me, God was a holy being, and I was anything but that. In Matthew 5:18 Jesus said that until heaven and earth passed, not one jot or tittle of the law would pass. In other words, it was unacceptable to break even one iota of God’s law.

That wouldn’t have been a problem if God’s laws were easy, but they weren’t. In Matthew 5 Jesus said if we looked upon a woman to lust after her, we committed adultery in our hearts (Matthew 5:28) and if we called our brothers fools we’d be in danger of hell fire (Matthew 5:22).

In his sermon in Alma 5:28-29, Alma says:

“Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life. Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.”

Despite the strictness of God’s commands, I gained comfort in the idea of enabling grace as defined in the Bible Dictionary. It was a power God gave his disciples so they could accomplish impossible feats. However, as time dragged on I found myself falling short again and again. I would repent of my sins only to find myself trapped in them again, or trespassing against God in new ways. This led me into greater despair and guilt than I originally felt. Doctrine and Covenants 82:7 says: “And now, verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, will not lay any sin to your charge; go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.”

No matter how hard I tried, or how desperately I prayed for God’s enabling grace, I couldn’t approach God’s standard. It felt like the odds were stacked against me like I’d been given an impossible gospel to carry out. Of course, I believed I’d get a second chance at repenting in the next life, but that didn’t carry much hope. I’d always been taught it was harder to repent in Spirit Prison. If I couldn’t reach perfection here, how could I do it there?

It was no wonder Romans 3:10 said there were none righteous and 1 John 1:8 said we deceived ourselves if we claimed we had no sin. That left me in a pitiable position since, according to the Bible, the wages of sin was death (Romans 6:23). If you find yourself in a similar position, take heart. The message of the Vicarious Atonement is for you.

“…it was unacceptable to break even one iota of God’s law.”

The Law Our Schoolmaster
Evangelicals used to tell me God gave the Israelites the Law of Moses to show them they couldn’t keep it. That statement is antithetical to everything Latter-day Saints believe. Why would a loving Heavenly Father give us commandments we can’t keep?

To answer that question, let me point to a simple equation. 1+1=2. This equation has two parts, the problem, and the solution. You can’t find the answer without the problem, and when it comes to salvation, the problem is the law. The more we try to amputate sin from our lives, the more aware we become of our enslavement to it.

The New Testament teaches that the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). As a Latter-day Saint, I thought that meant I became righteous by obeying God’s laws. However, the opposite is true. The law doesn’t make us righteous, it exists to condemn us.

Galatians 3:21-24 (KJV) says:

“Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

This is a shocking revelation. Paul says that righteousness doesn’t come by keeping the law, in fact no law can be enacted that generates it. In verse 22 he says it’s because we’re sinners that we can receive faith. In other words, we have to be beaten down and pinned against the wall before we realize we can’t do it ourselves. Faith is realizing we have nothing to offer. We acknowledge we have received the due wages of our sin and only Jesus can bring us to life.

In Colossians 2:13 Paul says we were dead in our sins. As a Latter-day Saint, you are uniquely equipped to understand the implications of this because it coincides with your doctrine about temples. A vicarious ordinance can only be performed for a dead person. Once the ordinance is done, the dead person merely has to accept what was done on their behalf.

This is called imputation. In other words, your act of righteousness (i.e. getting baptized, endowed, or sealed) is accredited to the dead as if they did it themselves. But wait, there’s more. In LDS theology there’s never talk of the dead having to repent if they break the covenants associated with ordinances. In fact, Alma 42:13 says repentance can only occur in mortality. It logically follows that the dead don’t accept a covenant that can condemn them, but a covenant that acts as though it’s been kept perfectly.

This is essentially what Jesus did for us. He lived a perfect life of obedience to the Father, and on the cross, he traded His righteousness for our sin. This is why Romans 5:10 associates salvation not only with Christ’s death but with His life. Since He was obedient, we are endowed with perfect righteousness. It is as if we obeyed every commandment God ever gave.

Nephi’s Courage
After leaving Jerusalem, Lehi and his family come to a valley with a river running into the ocean. He says to his son Lemuel, “Oh that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!” (1 Nephi 2:9)

The Fountain of all Righteousness is God, He is the source. The imagery of a river flowing endlessly into the sea is symbolic of what Christ does for us. Even though we continue to sin, His righteousness flows into us, drowning out our wickedness.

When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well he said, “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14 KJV)

If we’re trying to drink from the well of human righteousness, that well will run dry. However, Christ’s righteousness is infinite and never ceases to quench our parched souls.

In Philippians 3:8-9 (KJV) Paul says:

“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,

And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”

Here he claims that the righteousness he has is not his own, but that it comes from Christ. Furthermore, he obtained righteousness through faith. This idea is echoed in Enos. After praying to God, the Lord tells Enos his sins are forgiven. Bewildered, Enos asks how it is done. The Lord answers in Enos 1:8: “And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole.”

Enos wasn’t justified because of ordinances or obedience to commandments. If he were, he wouldn’t have been surprised when he was forgiven. When we work to become righteous, forgiveness becomes a wage instead of a gift. In this instance, it was faith alone that made Enos whole. All he had to do to receive the Vicarious Atonement was believe in Christ.

This idea of imputed righteousness is heavily emphasized in 2 Nephi chapter 2. Verse 3 says we are “redeemed because of the righteousness of [our] Redeemer.” Verse 4 says “salvation is free”, and verse 8 says, “there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.”

Perhaps the greatest metaphor ever written about imputation comes from 1 Nephi in chapters 3 and 4. It tells a story of Nephi and his brothers going to Jerusalem to get a set of brass plates from a powerful man named Laban.

Their initial attempts meet with failure because Laban is unwilling to part with his treasure. Nephi’s family comes back with their riches, intent on purchasing the plates. Laban takes their money but drives them out of his presence.

Just when things look hopeless, an angel appears saying Laban will be delivered into their hands. Nephi creeps into the city and finds Laban passed out drunk in the street. At the urging of the Spirit, Nephi takes Laban’s sword and decapitates him.

He then puts on Laban’s clothing and equipment and makes his way to the treasury. Once he’s inside, he is mistaken for Laban and given the brass plates.

In this metaphorical story, the brass plates represent salvation and Laban represents Christ. When they offer their riches to purchase the plates, they are driven off. Such will be the case if we try to offer God our obedience as a currency to enter heaven.

But then the story takes a turn. Nephi slays Laban and puts on his clothes. This symbolizes putting on Christ’s righteousness. Suddenly we are no longer judged as imposters trying to break into heaven, but as if we were Christ Himself. The Book of Mormon calls this “putting on the robes of righteousness” (2 Nephi 9:14).

Laban even has to die in order for this to take place. The parallels are really astounding.

In one of the more heartfelt monologues in The Book of Mormon, Nephi confesses that he is easily beset by sin, and tells us what it is that gives him courage in the face of his human frailty.

2 Nephi 4:17-19 says:

“Nevertheless, notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.

I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.

And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.”

There is no comfort in the gospel of amputation. It leaves us sorrowing over our wretched state. However, when we trust in Christ, he overcomes our sins and becomes our bedrock of courage.

The Tree Of Life
In his vision, Lehi saw an iron rod leading to a tree with fruit that gave joy to all those who ate of it. There was an iron rod that led to this tree. In 1 Nephi 11:22, it’s revealed that the tree represents the love of God. If I can expound on this imagery further, I think the tree represents the cross of Christ, and the fruit is His grace. The iron rod ends at the cross because there’s nowhere to go beyond that.

Colossians 2:13-14 teaches the Vicarious Atonement in a nutshell. It reads:

“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;

Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross.”

Romans 10:4 asserts that Jesus “is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” Where does this leave the LDS Church, with its saving ordinances and covenants? In one sense, it renders the Church obsolete. The gospel of imputation puts the emphasis on Jesus and hangs salvation on His merits alone. He effectively becomes our baptism, sealing, and endowment. He becomes our priesthood and our temple. Romans 4:24-25 teach that Christ’s righteousness is accredited to our accounts when we believe in Him.

However, Mormonism isn’t a bad thing either, if it’s viewed in its proper context. There’s no system or religion that can generate righteousness, not even the covenants of the restored gospel. However, Mormonism is extremely useful when identified as a schoolmaster bringing us to Christ. There are so many ways being raised as a Latter-day Saint has helped me understand and appreciate grace in a way I never could have if I’d been raised Protestant.

In Galatians 3:25 Paul says that once faith is obtained, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. If viewed this way, the LDS Church must be given up in order to gain something better. Thanks to the Vicarious Atonement your work has been done. The only question that remains is: will you accept it?

“Your work has been done. The only question that remains is: will you accept it?”

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