"Knee-Bending Rules"

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Jeffrey Thayne

“Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.”
—Lehi, 2 Nephi 2:6–7

In my post, “Metaphors of the Atonement,” I argued the possibility that God is capable and willing to forgive us at any time, and to welcome us back into his presence. I also argued that the Atonement is necessary for the change of heart within us that will allow us to return to our Heavenly Father, not to appease some metaphysical law that demands recompense for our misdeeds. Two possible objections have been raised in response to this possibility.

The first objection is that this way of looking at the Atonement could be misunderstood to negate the need for repentance. However, the efficacy of the Atonement hinges upon our personal repentance. In the parable of the prodigal son, even though the father was willing and ready to receive and embrace his son without recompense, his son had to first find his way home. This journey home is repentance, and repentance is enabled by the Atonement. As Amulek declares, the Atonement of Jesus Christ “bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. … Only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption” (Alma 34:15–16)

The second objection is that the scriptures, including the one included at the beginning of the post, often speak of salvation as contingent upon laws that only the Atonement satisfies. It is true that the scriptures lend easy support to a legalistic depiction of the Atonement; I believe that such a depiction is valuable and in many ways true. My only claim is that, like any metaphor, it is incomplete for the reasons I provided. Eugene England’s alternative depiction of the Atonement may also be incomplete in many ways.

Also, many of the scriptures that lend support for a legalistic depiction of the Atonement can be read and understood in other ways. For example, we often interpret the verse at the beginning of this post to mean that Christ’s sacrifice answers the demands of the law. However, this is not what the verse says; it says, “he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law.” End in this context could easily mean the “final destination or purpose.” Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for sin to fulfill the purpose of the law.

What is the purpose of the law? To bring us unto Christ. Paul told that Romans, “The law entered, that the offence might abound … and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 5:20; 3:19). The law condemns us, for “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and compels us to turn to the Savior for redemption. James Ferrell explains,

As I read the scriptures, I find there are two main purposes for the commandments. … The first is that the commandments teach us the standards of heaven. They prepare us for heaven by teaching us to live and be refined by heaven’s law in the here and now, a law lived by Christ and by all who will live with him in the eternities. … Here’s the part that’s not so well understood: Because the commandments teach us the standards of heaven, they also awaken us to the realization of how we are failing fully to live those standards. And since forgiveness for such failures cannot be found in the commandments themselves, the commandments therefore drive us to Christ with broken hearts and contrite spirits. This, Jesus taught, is one of their primary purposes. To the Nephites he said, “I have given you the law and the commandments of my Father, that ye shall believe in me, and that ye shall repent of your sins, and come unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Ne. 12:19).

… These commandments expose our remaining, ample, and damning brokenness, every one of them inviting us to view ourselves in our own carnal state and to contritely fall to the ground in fear of the Lord. If you and I are not completely clean and pure, and we’re not, then the commandments compel us, just as they compelled the commandment-keeping people of King Benjamin, to our knees. And not merely to our knees, but to our knees before Him, which is the difference between despair on the one hand and hope on the other; for the Lord can change us.1

Ferrell also quoted Alma, who said to his son Corianton,

Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?

Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man. (Alma 42:17–18 )

Our remorse of conscience is what humbles us and leads us to seek redemption from the Savior Jesus Christ. Because the law is designed to bring us unto Christ, it is by striving to keep the commandments that we discover our weaknesses and find a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Ne. 9:20). Boyd K. Packer’s allegory of the debtor illustrates this point point well.2 The creditor, who represents the law, cannot extend forgiveness and mercy, because redemption cannot be found in the law. Rather, it was the creditor’s unrelenting demands that humbled the debtor and brought him to the Mediator. Ferrell continues:

It is the law that brings us to the One who can straighten our crookedness and justify us before God. Another way to say it is that while the commandments prepare us for heaven, they do not on their own make us heavenly, nor do they qualify us for heaven. Rather, they awaken us to our imperfections and thereby invite us to come humbly to Christ. It is then the Lord “makes weak things strong unto [us]” and transforms us into beings whose dispositions have been changed in such a way that the heavenly law becomes “written in our hearts.”1

It is in this way that the Atonement of Jesus Christ fulfills the purpose of the law. … It sanctifies us and changes our hearts so that we “have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:20). This change of heart will set us on our path towards our Eternal Home, where our Father in heaven is waiting to embrace us as he did the prodigal son. Thus repentance is necessary for our redemption, and the Atonement is necessary for our repentance. The scriptures can tell the story of redemption this way as easily as they tell the story of a legalistic atonement. Both metaphors have their value; personally, I feel that this one is more personal and meaningful, dealing with the transformative power of Atonement in my daily life, rather than the appeasement of distant metaphysical laws that have no origin.

Continued in “C. S. Lewis on Judgment Day.”

The title for this post is taken from James Ferrell’s book The Holy Secret.
1. James Ferrell, The Holy Secret (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008), p. .
2. Boyd K. Packer, “The Mediator,” Ensign, May 1977, p. 54.
3. Ferrell, The Holy Secret, p. .


  1. Another thing worth considering is that the Atonement is the vehicle through which repentance even becomes possible. Or, using the “prodigal son” example, his journey home would have been pointless if there were no home.

    The law does remind us both of what’s required of godliness and how we are failing, and in the latter sense, it provides a benchmark we can use to know what we need to change and improve upon. Without knowing the rules, we can’t play the game. It’s like somebody saying they’re sorry when they’re really not—it’s not efficacious.

    That’s why I like reading that Christ’s Atonement answers the ends of the law. The home is the prodigal’s end through his journey, just as heaven is our end through the Atonement (and the repentance it allows us).

  2. I agree! Thanks for the comment. One of the questions I addressed in “Metaphors of the Atonement” is “Why is the Atonement necessary for repentance?” I personally believe that it is because the change of heart needed to let go of our malice and return to God requires the invitation of love offered in the Atonement. I’m sure, Connor, you’ll recognize this possibility in your reading of Arbinger’s work. This view is more personally meaningful to me than the satisfaction of some metaphysical law that demands recompense (although there is nothing wrong with thinking about it that way).

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