Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Atonement: Christ Took On More Than Our Sins

“And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:37-39).

We read a little different account in Mark.

“And he taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy; And saith unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch. And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:33-36).

The messages in these verses are so powerful, so intensely moving, but you may miss what lies behind them if you’re not careful.

I think the thing that strikes me most is when Christ begins to be sore amazed. He has barely taken a few steps away from His trusted friends and suddenly he feels “exceeding sorrowful,” “heavy,” “even unto death.” Before now I had never given the matter of these immediate feelings a whole lot of thought. Of course I understood that He was about to take upon Himself all of our sins, and had attributed the sense of sorrow and foreboding to that. It wasn’t until I began to study this a little deeper that one particular comment I read struck me harder than anything I had read before.

“Yet, for all the things the Savior knew, there was one thing he did not know, and, in fact, could not know because of what he was. The scriptures declare with absolute certainty that Jesus was perfect, without sin…

“Being perfect, Jesus did not and could not know what sin felt like. He did not have the experience of feeling the effects of sin – neither physically, spiritually, mentally, nor emotionally… Now, in an instant, he began to feel all the sensations and effects of sin, all the guilt, anguish, darkness, turmoil, depression, anger and physical sickness that sin brings” (Skinner, Andrew C., Gethsemane, Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 2002, p.58).

Christ didn’t understand why this heaviness and sorrow suddenly came upon Him because He had never sinned. In that moment the meaning behind the Atonement changed for our Savior. In that instant He began to fully understand how sin weighs us down, hides the light of God, and binds us spiritually.

It hit Him so hard He fell to the ground. As Neal A. Maxwell, a former leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed the Mormon Church), describes it:

“Imagine, Jehovah, the Creator of this and other worlds, ‘astonished’! Jesus knew cognitively what He must do, but not experientially. He had never personally known the exquisite and exacting process of an atonement before. Thus, when the agony came in its fullness, it was so much, much worse than even He with his unique intellect had ever imagined!” (Neal A. Maxwell, “Willing to Submit“, Ensign, May 1985).

Christ knew what had to be done in His head, but experiencing it was so much worse than He could possibly have imagined. What was the first thing He said? Abba. Father. He cried out to His Father. How many times do you hear a child cry out to a parent when hurt, injured, confused or scared? Jesus loved His Father dearly. He trusted His Father completely. Yet at this moment He found Himself enduring something He could never have understood up to that point.

He asked for the bitter cup to be taken from Him, but never without adding that His Father’s will came first. Though He was asked to endure what no mortal could, and asked not once, but three times for the cup to be removed, He always submitted to the will of the Father. Just as important is this: after He had endured the first round, Christ knew full well what would be asked of Him the next time, and He came back. He. Came. Back.

I cannot begin to know all that He went through during those 3 or 4 hours He spent in the Garden. We all know what sin can do to us, the guilt, the sorrow, the bondage we place ourselves under when we willingly commit it. These moments for us are but a drop in the ocean of what our elder brother, Jesus Christ, endured that night. He who was perfect, who had never sinned before, who was sore amazed at the effects of sin on the entire world from the beginning to the end, came back to finish the work. He loves us, He loves our Heavenly Father, that much.

No other man on this earth could have done what Jesus Christ did for us in that moment. Because He came back to finish the work, we are able to repent, to become clean again, to have the remarkable hope of one day living with our Father in Heaven again. He loves us that much.


It’s a heavy concept, the thought of taking upon oneself the sins of every person who ever has, and ever will, live. Even those of us with the most incredible imaginations could never possibly hope to come close to understanding what it was the Savior took upon Himself that night in Gethsemane.

All of us have sinned at least once in our lives, even if we did it in ignorance. Many children are taught incorrect truths as they grow up: swearing, hatred, intolerance, etc. I have known such sweet and innocent children, and even teens and adults, who have come to think evil things to be good, because that’s what they have been taught. Christ took every one of those sins upon Himself. But this is not all.

There are those out in the world who know what the laws of God are, and knowingly break those laws. At some point in their lives they have been taught what is right, or have felt the promptings of the Holy Spirit telling them what they are doing is wrong and have ignored those feelings. Even to the most vile sinners has the Lord offered the chance to be cleansed, by taking upon Him those sins, fully experiencing what they experienced, and knowing why they did what they did. But this is not all.

“In Gethsemane Jesus took the full force of God’s overwhelming and retributory punishment. Justice demanded it, and we, who are sinners, deserve it. According to the rules framing the universe, the full consequences of transgressed laws cannot be dismissed or overlooked. They must be borne by someone – the sinner or the substitute. Jesus was that substitute for all of us who will allow him to be so” (Skinner, Andrew C., Gethsemane, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002, p.51).

In other words, when we sin justice demands a punishment. If we do not repent we must face the punishment ourselves. However if we become remorseful, and truly repent of the sin(s) committed, Christ’s suffering in the Garden will be enough to erase the sin. He has already endured the punishment for us. But this is not all.

In the Book of Mormon, another testament of Christ, we are taught a new truth of what the Savior took upon Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. These words come from a prophet by the name of Alma, who lived in the Americas around 80 BC.

“And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind’ and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

“And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12).

Christ took upon himself our infirmities. What does this tell us? He knows what it’s like to have cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis, autism, depression, and myriads of other illnesses and diseases we are sometimes asked to endure to bring us a little closer to Him. Not only this, but He understands our pains. He knows what it’s like when we lose a loved one to death, to watch someone suffer needlessly and feel unable to help, to be tempted to the point of aching to give in. He knows and understands everything we will ever go through, whether it’s what God the Father places on our shoulders to endure, or what we will bring upon ourselves through incorrect choices. He knows. Surely all of this should be enough for us to be spiritually saved, but even this is not all.

There came a point in those awful hours, when He had gone through so much already even to the point of having an angel there to strengthen Him (Luke 22:43), when one more thing had to happen for the Atonement to truly be complete. The Spirit of God was removed from Him.

Think for a moment about how terrifying and horrible this must have been to someone who had never been without the light of God the Father in His entire life. In that moment of spiritual darkness He became subject to the fullness of Satan’s wrath.

Boyd K. Packer said:

“He, by choice, accepted the penalty for all mankind for the sum total of all wickedness and depravity….In choosing, He faced all the awesome power of the evil one who was not confined to the flesh, nor subject to mortal pain. That was Gethsemane” (Boyd K. Packer, “Atonement, Agency, Accountability“, Ensign, May 1988).

It was then, divided from the light of His Father, enduring everything we choose and are asked to go through, subject to the worst Satan could inflict, that Christ began to bleed from every pore (Luke 22:44). What did Christ do in this awful moment? He began to pray more earnestly. This man, who knew more about prayer than anyone on earth could ever hope to understand, prayed even harder.

At last it was done. Can there have been a more achingly glorious sight, unless it be the Resurrected Christ, than the picture of Him rising to His feet. Shaking, drenched in sweat and blood, He arose victorious! How the angels in Heaven must have cried out in joy! I would imagine the most comforting words to Jesus must have come from His Father. “Soon,” He might have said, “You will have rest. Just a little while longer, and we will be together again.”

All of this Christ did, for us and for His Father. In taking upon Himself everything, justice has been satisfied. We can repent and become clean again. The light of God can be a constant in our lives. All of these blessing and more, because our elder brother descended far below us all. All of this because He loves us.

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