The Roles of Justice, Sacrifice and Mercy in the Atonement of Christ
by Mike Clark © 2020
Note that this article is written in accordance with my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I am a member. The contents of the article are my own work, and does not necessarily represent the view of the Church.
There are many different, yet correct, ways to look at and think about the Atonement. I am inclined to think of the following as just one more way of looking at and illuminating the Lord’s infinite and eternal sacrifice, which is like a jewel too vast for us to comprehend fully. Hence, each explanation looks at it from a different angle, and each has merit. Not one single explanation is necessarily the best or final explanation.
What follows is one way of looking at the Atonement. You might note that I primarily reference the Book of Mormon here. In my opinion, that book teaches Christ more effectively, at least in this aspect, than any other book.
Due to our disobedience to God's laws, we have caused a implacable barrier to be placed between ourselves and God the Father. Further, that disobedience has placed us into a condition of imbalance with respect to Justice. We have sinned, and in order for the scales of justice to be tipped back into alignment, we will have to be punished; there is no escape from it. After we are punished, we will be back in balance ("at one") with Justice, and nothing further will be required of us on that score, but we will remain forever apart from God, because our sin has irrevocably placed us out of balance with Him, who is Sinless. Unless a way is found, we can't go where He is, and will never be able to go there.
This is because not even God can avoid the demands of Justice and simply let bygones be bygones. As the prophet Alma taught, “What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit” (Alma 42:25.)
There is only one way to avoid this situation and that is to be cleaned of your sin; merely suffering for it or paying for it is insufficient. We must be placed back in balance with both Justice and God. But who can do this for us? We cannot do it for ourselves, because paying for our own sins by our own suffering does not remove the stain of those sins. As Alma says:
"I say unto you, ye will know at that day that ye cannot be saved; for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain..." (Alma 5:21)
Fortunately, but actually by design, along comes Jesus Christ, who was born into mortal life like you. Due to his disparate parentage (a literal child of both God and of Man) he inherits the ability to sin from his mortal mother, but from his eternal Father he inherits both the ability to resist committing sin, and the ability to resist death. So he resists both sin and death until his time comes, and then he voluntarily takes on the punishment which is required of all those who have sinned, but which he does not deserve! Having done this, he has placed himself not out of balance with Justice, but Justice has been placed out of balance with Him! Justice is now in debt to the Christ! And the depth of the debt is Infinite, as Nephi said in 2 Nephi 9:7:
“Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement…”
Because the depth of Justice’s debt to Christ is infinite (see my essay on The Mathematics of the Atonement of Jesus Christ), Christ has the right to dispense mercy, and to overpower Justice’s claim on the sinner. As Amulek said in Alma 34:15:
“And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice…”
But Christ does not dispense that mercy universally, without condition. He requires that we exhibit faith that leads to repentance, as Amulek says further:
“…and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.”
What Christ requires of us who sin is that we repent of our sins. Note that this does not buy our salvation from sin! We cannot earn that salvation, but this is what He nevertheless requires of us. Amulek continues:
“And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.” (Alma 34:15–16, italics added.)
In further words, Christ is the master of mercy; He can dispense it or withhold it at His sole discretion.
“I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive…” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:10)
This is one of the reasons why we call Christ "the Master".
And this is why Christ is our Savior! He does not require that we BE perfect (which is mortally impossible), He requires only that we WANT to be perfect, and that we demonstrate this desire by our actions in showing our Faith in Him by repentance, baptism of water, and baptism of fire (in other words receiving the Holy Ghost).
By his great redeeming sacrifice, Christ “hath sat down on the right hand of God, to claim of the Father his rights of mercy which he hath upon the children of men” (Moroni 7:27.)
And this been done "...through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins," even through the blood of Christ.