Atonement and the Law of Justice

By Richard Price

"And thus God breaketh the bands of death ... standing betwixt them and justice."
(Mosiah 8:35,37)

Spring is the time when newness of life breaks forth in nature, and a time when Christians celebrate Easter. It is a time to contemplate the meanings of the Crucifixion, Atonement, and the Resurrection of Christ. These three events are so important that they need to be studied carefully.

The Atonement is a subject which has been difficult for many to understand because the Bible does not explain it as completely as the Book of Mormon does. At the time of the coming forth of the Restoration, Christian ministers preached that it was an angry God who demanded Christ's blood as payment for sin. It was taught that sinners owed God a debt, and that it was necessary to "assuage His divine wrath" in order to receive forgiveness. Cotton Mather and other great preachers in Colonial America preached "hellfire and brimstone" sermons in which they portrayed the individual likened unto a spider hanging by a thread over an open fire, and God as a person with a pair of scissors, ready to cut the thread. God was represented as being cruel and vengeful.

But one of the elements of the fullness of the Gospel, which was returned when the New Testament Church was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith in the great Restoration Movement, was the concept that it was the law of justice that required a payment for sin, and that God was not brutal.

God is our loving Heavenly Father, and He is happy to forgive when people truly repent and surrender their lives to Him. He would not insist upon further pain and bloodshed, when there had been too much of it already, just to pay Him to forgive. No, there is something else involved, and only the Book of Mormon explains what it is.

It explains that it is the law of justice that requires a payment for sin. High School students learn in physics class that there is an opposite and equal reaction to every action. When a gun is fired, the "kick" on the gun is just as strong as the force pushing the bullet. And once the bullet is in motion, it will go on forever, unless it is stopped by air friction or a target.

So it is that the law of justice demands that every sin be paid for. When a sin is committed, it sets in motion a series of harmful results which continue until it is stopped—just like a bullet from a gun. The consequence of every sin is that its evil results go on and on unless it is stopped by a payment of some kind. For "All kingdoms have a law given: and . . . all beings who abide not in those conditions, are not justified; for intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence . . . mercy hath compassion on mercy, and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course, and claimeth its own" (Doctrine and Covenants 85:9a, 10a, b). The sin must be stopped or "paid for" so its results will not continue on endlessly.

In the Book of Mormon the Prophet Abinadi explains that it is the law of justice that had to be appeased—that it was a loving Father who gave His best gift (His own Son) in payment—rather than an angry God seeking vengeance. He explained, "And thus God breaketh the bands of death ... giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men . . . being filled with compassion ... standing betwixt them and justice . . . having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice" (Mosiah 8:35, 36,37; italics added).

The Prophet Alma went into more detail when he explained the nature of the Atonement to his son. He wrote,

And now, my son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye can not understand, which is concerning the justice of God, in the punishment of the sinner: for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery. . . .

And now there was no means to reclaim men from this fallen state which man had brought upon himself, because of his own disobedience; therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only, on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state; yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. . . .

And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them for ever to be cut off from his presence.

Now repentance could not come unto men, except there were a punishment, which also was as eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul. . . .

And also, if there was no law given against sin, men would not be afraid to sin. 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. But there is a law given and a punishment affixed, and 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. But God ceaseth not to be God, and mercy claimeth the penitent, and mercy cometh because of the atonement; and the atonement bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead: and the resurrection of the dead bringeth back men into the presence of God; and thus they are restored into his presence; to be judged according to their works; according to the law and justice; for behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved.

What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God. (Alma 19:81, 93–94, 96–98, 102–107)

So God was not a cruel, vengeful God when He required the blood of Christ as payment for sin. Instead, it was a loving Father that gave His best gift to redeem mankind. And Jesus, who created man under the direction of the Father (Hebrews 1:2; John 1:3), gave Himself as a ransom for those whom He had created—those of them who would repent.

The Saints should understand the Atonement better than other Christians, because the Book of Mormon explains the Atonement to a greater degree than the Bible. Because of this we should love and obey God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. And we should earnestly share our greater understanding of the law of justice with the people of other faiths. Let us use this important revealment from the Book of Mormon as a missionary tool to help in bringing people of all faiths to Christ.