BH Roberts: Atonement in Harmony with Inexorable Law

The first chapter that B.H. Roberts devotes to the atonement in his book ‘The Truth, The Way, The Life’ is concerned with establishing the atonement of Christ as a revealed fact. I am assuming that those who will read this most likely do not dispute this fact, so I do not plan to review that chapter. The second chapter on the atonement (chapter 41) in titled ‘Atonement II – In Harmony with the Reign of Law’. And I would like to share a simple review of this.

Roberts first proposes that just as there are physical laws which govern the physical universe, there are also moral or spiritual laws which govern the universe as well.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law … I am come not to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. (Matt 5:17-18)

A word which Roberts likes to attribute to law is the word ‘inexorable’. In fact, he seems to feel that inexorable law is the only way such laws can be. I do not think I am overstating things in the least to say that Roberts would say that to understand the atonement one must accept the idea of an inexorable moral or spiritual law. Inexorable is a word I never use so I had to look it up. Inexorable means things like ‘nonnegotiable’, and ‘inescapable’. This is to say that this moral or spiritual law of the universe can not be violated without the associated consequences.

An important idea for Roberts is the idea that we are under the ‘reign of law’, and not the ‘reign of God’ independent of law. Another way to look at this is that we are under the reign of God through inexorable law. This allows us to understand God as a being who does not change, and is no respecter of persons. He will not, and even can not, amend, suspend, modify, or lay aside this law. There is no ‘special providence’ or capricious sovereign will governing things. Instead there is a divine moral and spiritual government operating through the reign of law.

One might ask where mercy and forgiveness come in such an inexorable system of law. Roberts asserts that wherever there is mercy and forgiveness of sin it must be viewed as the result of the operation of law, just as much as when the law proceeds to the utmost of its severity. He uses the following scripture to help make this point:

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of the world, upon which all blessings are predicated; and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130:20-21)

Roberts includes the blessing of forgiveness of sins and mercy with all other blessings.

Roberts makes what I feel is an interesting explanation about part of the purpose of the Plan of Salvation. That for us to progress, we must be exposed to a new order of things. An order which involves the knowledge of good and evil. Thus a new righteousness can emerge. An intelligent righteousness, based on experience. And this, combined with an inexorable law, is what makes an atonement expedient.

Roberts explains that for mankind to progress, and inexorable law to be satisfied, Christ, who is the Son of God, was made flesh and dwelt among men. He live a man’s life, yet did not yield to temptation. He suffered not for his own transgressions, but for Adam’s, and for ours. He voluntarily suffered that we would not have to, upon conditions of accepting Christ and repenting. His sacrifice was that of a God, and it was the greatest atonement that could be made. A supreme sacrifice indeed!

29 Responses to “BH Roberts: Atonement in Harmony with Inexorable Law”

  1. 1 J. Stapley July 12, 2007 at 11:37 am

    This is an interesting perspective to me. I see the big question as being what are these inexorable laws. We know that one thing can be sinful at one time and righteous at another. So is the law really complicated to account for these shifts, or is there really simple meta-laws that state things like, “relationships of love and trust are good.”

  2. 2 Eric Nielson July 12, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Thanks for reading and commenting J.

    I found it interesting to. Many Mormons have a quite legal view of things relating to the atonement – final judgement, advocate, etc. I have been influenced that way, and lean that way currently.

    I would not be all that surprised to find out that these laws are relatively few in number and quite simple in content, but that may be just me.

  3. 3 Jacob J July 13, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    For B.H. Roberts, the inexorable law is that for every sin there must be a punishment. This becomes an obvious rational for the suffering of Jesus (to fulfil the law). I don’t think that particular “law” is a compelling candidate for an inexorable law which is why I think his account of the atonement ends up being unpersuasive.

  4. 4 Eric Nielson July 13, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    Jacob J:


    Huh? What do you mean by particular law?

  5. 5 Jacob J July 13, 2007 at 9:00 pm

    Sorry, my wording was not clear.

    Proposed Inexorable Law 1: For every sin there must be a punishment.

    I don’t think Proposed Inexorable Law 1 is a compelling candidate for an actual inexorable law of the universe, which is why I find Roberts’ account of the atonement to be ultimately unpersuasive.

  6. 6 Naiah July 14, 2007 at 12:26 am

    Both the post and J’s comment make me think of a distinction that Michelle and I have talked about several times–the idea that true doctrine is eternal, like these inexorable laws. As J mentioned, from our perspective some things required of us change over time, but the doctrine behind it is always the same.

    I’ll definitely have to read this book, and see how Roberts’s ideas feed in to it all; I’ll add it to my queue.

  7. 7 Eric Nielson July 14, 2007 at 1:55 pm


    Thanks for explaining. Um, is it possible that ‘punishment’ might be the wrong word. Perhaps a combnination of justice and suffering. So that ‘for every sin there will be some combination of suffering and need for justice involved’. As I think we will see in future chapters ‘suffering’ of some type is what sin is ultimately about. And that the atonement can take care of this suffering and apply an eternal judgement for injured parties.

    ‘Punishment’ makes it sound like a sovreign will reigning which seems to be what Roberts wants to avoid. Might this be a case where this ‘punishment’ is more along the lines of natural consequences. Yet I do feel that there will be a ‘final judgement’ which will be administered by Christ. But that even this will be according to eternal law.

  8. 8 Eric Nielson July 14, 2007 at 1:59 pm


    I have really enjoyed Roberts’ book. There is an amount of speculation as he attempts to ‘explain it all’. There are parts in it that were called false doctrine by Jospeh Fielding Smith, particularly the section about pre-Adamites.

    Roberts was a really smart guy, who many consider the greatest intellectual of the church. I enjoy his ambitious attempt to explain pretty near everything – even though some of it is necessarily speculative.

  9. 9 Robert July 15, 2007 at 2:32 am

    “This allows us to understand God as a being who does not change…”

    Might this, also, be another way of saying that Heavenly Father is, also, under the same law – bound to it within the realms he occupies and it, also, operates through? In other words, He just can’t apply an ‘egotisitical’ formula when ‘applying’ or ‘not applying’ the law – since, in reality, the law is going to be applied regardless of anything He may or may not do – though it comes from him, in terms that the law is applied through the manifestations?

    The comments on this chapter also raises an interesting question for me: Was Christ’s atonement and sacrifice also something carried out before ‘Christ was in the historical person of Jesus’ — in other words – might there have been an act of sacrifice made in his pre-existence? The best illustration I can give is a sort of sacrifice to ‘enter’ the fallen, human world; foregoing/sacrificing any notion of his personal, ‘eternal progression’ that does not include the redemption of fallen Adam?

  10. 10 Jacob J July 15, 2007 at 2:31 pm


    Um, is it possible that ‘punishment’ might be the wrong word.

    I don’t think punishment is the wrong word. Roberts is nothing if he is not long-winded, so it is sometimes hard to find a single quote that encapsulates the essence of what he is saying. Nevertheless, I think this quote below will be enough to make this particular point:

    We conclude then that for man’s individual sins as for Adam’s sin, though differing in some respects already noted, involves the same necessity of Atonement to the honor of God by one equal with God—hence God.

    There is the same inexorableness of law; the same helplessness on the part of man to make satisfaction for his sin, hence man’s dependence upon a vicarious atonement, if he is to find redemption at all. There is the same need for capacity in the one making the atonement to make full satisfaction to the justice of God by paying the uttermost farthing of man’s obligations to the law; the idea of satisfaction necessarily involves that of penal suffering, coupling together those two ideas, satisfaction and expiation; or satisfaction to Justice through expiation. The Deity who redeems man must pay the penalty due to sin by suffering in man’s stead. (B.H. Roberts, Seventy’s Course in Theology 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907-1912) 4:103, emphasis mine)

    Notice that it is not merely suffering; he is very explicit that the suffering is “penal” (i.e. punishment). Penal suffering is required to satisfy the “justice of God.” B.H. Roberts was very smart, yes, but his theory of atonement is almost entirely a recitation of the standard “satisfaction” and “penal substitution” theories (he takes elements of both and mixes them together).

    I am not entirely sure what distinction you are getting at with your comments about natural consequences and judgment. Elsewhere, Roberts says that:

    The sin of Adam was a sin against divine law; a sin against the majesty of God. Only a God can render a satisfaction to that insulted honor and majesty. (pg. 94)

    As I said, it is a mix-and-match of satisfaction and penal theories, depending on which question Roberts is addressing at the moment, but you’ll notice in the quote above that this is not a matter of natural consequences. Satisfying the “insulted honor and majesty” of God is hardly a matter of natural suffering in consequence of breaking eternal law.

  11. 11 Eric Nielson July 16, 2007 at 8:41 am


    Thanks for your comment. I think your first full paragraph is exactly what Roberts is getting at in this chapter.

    Your second paragraph is a bit beyond me for the moment. I do not feel prepared to address it. It is an interesting thought regarding even a preexistence sacrifice just in coming to earth.

  12. 12 Eric Nielson July 16, 2007 at 8:48 am


    I think you are correct in classifying Roberts position as being mostly a penal-substitution approach to the atonement.

    You said you were not really sure what I was getting at when I brought up natural consequences and judgement. That was some of my own opinions leaking in in an awkward way. I was not suggesting Roberts felt that way. Again I think your general classification is correct.

    I am not as good at classifying these explanations as you are. I think I lean a little toward an empathy/satisfaction mix personally, but I am still trying to form my own opinions and explanations. Part of my purpose in reveiwing this is to see if there is more to the penal substitution/satisfaction explanations than some give credit for.

    For those who are interested, JacobJ wrote an article on the atonement that was published in Dialog magazine. You can read his article here.

  13. 13 Jacob J July 16, 2007 at 11:22 am

    Part of my purpose in reveiwing this is to see if there is more to the penal substitution/satisfaction explanations than some give credit for.

    Good call, I think that is very important. I apologize if my comments were too dismissive of Roberts’ thoughts, I definitely think they are worth reading and thinking deeply about. As always you are the model of tact and charity while I am a bit of a boar. Thanks for putting up with me.

  14. 14 Eric Nielson July 16, 2007 at 11:36 am


    I hope you don’t go away. I just re-read your article over break. I am not really up to speed on it. Interesting stuff.

    You call your theory divine-infusion theory. Is this not in some way the other side of the coin of penal substitution. You would probably strongly disagree with this, but I would be interesting in understanding why. Where you might say that when we do well, we recieve more light because of the atonement. And by sinning, what? we do not receive the ‘light’ or have some taken away? Is this not the same thing from a different angle?

    So if JacobJ has more light than GeoffJ (which appears to be the case … hahaha) it is not because God is playing favorites and likes JacobJ better. It is based on fair and objective performance and the criteria for more divine infusion would be just and fair, not capricious and arbitrary. Could one not call this ‘law’?

    Just trying to understand.

  15. 15 Jacob J July 16, 2007 at 1:59 pm


    Could one not call this ‘law’?

    I am not at all opposed to the idea of eternal laws, it is just that I think some make sense and others do not. For example, my theory relies heavily on the idea that it is simply the nature of the universe that we cannot permanently dwell in a kingdom without living the law of that kingdom (per D&C 88). You could certainly call this a “law” of the universe (a meta-law like J. referred to). Such a law seems very plausible to me and rather than conflicting with my sense of justice, it fits nicely with it (we get what we deserve, desert being based on who we are, etc.).

    Is this not in some way the other side of the coin of penal substitution.

    I am not sure what you mean by “the other side of the coin”? Do you mean that both rely on the concept of inexorable law, they just define different laws? If so, then yes. The problem with penal-substitution is not that it is based on a proposed eternal law. Rather, it is that the suggested fulfillment of the law (one person suffering for another persons misdeeds) flies in the face of everything we know about justice in any other setting. Our sense of justice objects and if we can’t trust our sense of justice, what can we trust?

    Does that make my position any clearer?

  16. 16 Eric Nielson July 16, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    Yes. Thanks Jacob. Roberts does devote a chapter to this. I will have you in mind when I get to it.

  17. 17 Michelle July 21, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Our sense of justice objects and if we can’t trust our sense of justice, what can we trust?

    OK, Jacob, help me out here. This “sense of justice” gets a lot of power in ‘nacle discussions. And yet, we are mortal and so why do we think that we can truly trust our sense and understanding of justice? It’s one of the things about rejection of penal substitution theory that most bothers me (not that I am certain of what “theory” is “accurate”). (Not to mention how this seems to dominate in other discussions as well, and yet, and yet, there is not agreement on what justice really “should” look like, and therefore I don’t have a lot of trust in this concept of “sense of justice.”)

    In short, I think that sometimes we might place too much emphasis on our sense of justice.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts and where this idea has come from that our sense of justice should drive our understanding. It confuses me.

  18. 18 Michelle July 21, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    Amulek makes it clear that it is not merely the Nephite law, but the law of justice itself that will not allow one person to pay for the sins of another. If one person cannot atone for the sins of another, as this scripture states, then why was Christ able to atone for our sins?

    I keep telling myself that I won’t get into atonement theory discussions, but I really would like to understand some of these thoughts better.

    When I read this scripture in Alma, I don’t see it as saying that eternal law won’t allow one person to pay for another’s sins, I hear that a human cannot, that man cannot. (I also hear him talking about “our law” which sounds like mortal law, not eternal law). But what about a God? Amulek follows up by saying that because the law requires the life of the murderer, some other human cannot shed blood to atone; note vs. 10:

    “For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice.”

    The contrast between a human sacrifice (which is what I see the “just law” limiting the power of) and an infinite and eternal sacrifice suggests to me that the eternal sacrifice fulfills law in a different way. It’s not a one-for-one deal. Because He was a God, somehow the law of justice allows Him to cover our sins.

    Also, why else would the law of Moses require a vicarious shedding of blood if there wasn’t a vicarious suffering being symbolized, a vicarious payment of blood for the sins, fulfilling the demands of the law? Think of how physical the old law was, too.

    I dunno. I find the rejection of penal substitution less than satisfying. It’s never jibed with me. And scriptures like this don’t seem to support such rejection of the idea that the law of justice demanded this eternal sacrifice, or else that we give our own lives or suffer ourselves in very real and physical ways (think D&C 19 and suffering even as He suffered — by shedding blood!).

    Anyway, thanks for any thoughts you might share in return, or at least for listening.

    And Eric, if this is a threadjack, then send me away and I can do this on my blog or something. 🙂

  19. 19 Eric Nielson July 22, 2007 at 9:55 am

    No threadjack Michelle.

    Stay tuned….

  20. 20 Jacob J August 2, 2007 at 1:46 am


    I’m sorry that the atonement theory discussions have been such that you didn’t want to participate.

    Why should we trust our sense of justice?

    First, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t question our ideas about justice or that we can’t learn things about justice that we didn’t know directly from our sense of justice. Reading scriptures about justice and pondering hypothetical situations about justice can help us understand more about justice. But, the reason we call it a “sense” of justice is that it is untimately grounded in our experience.

    Think of our 5 physical senses, and notice that there is no way to explain them to someone who has never experienced them. You can’t explain sight to a blind person, just as you can’t explain the taste of salt to a person who hasn’t tasted it (as Boyd K. Packer reminds us). The word “salty” doesn’t mean anything unless you have tasted salt. Since we have both tasted salt, we can talk about things using the word “salty.” But, if one of us wants to use the word “salty” to describe the taste of sugar, we have a problem. “Salty” only means something if it is grounded in our experience, and our experience of salt is clear about the fact that it is not sweet. This analogy breaks down because our sense of taste does not have anything to do with ideas.

    We can compare our sense of justice to our sense of logic. Try to explain principles of logic to a three year old and you will learn that unless a person can “see” logical principles, there is no way to explain them. If someone tells me that logic dictates that if something exists, it must also be non-existent at the same time, I have a problem. My sense of logic tells me the opposite. It tells me that something either exists or does not, but it can’t both exist and not exist at the same time. If I can’t trust my sense of logic on a topic so basic as contradiction, then there is really no point using logic at all.

    The problem with penal substitution is that it challenges our most basic notion of justice. When someone tells me justice says that society should punish you (Michelle) for what I (Jacob J) did, I have a problem. Justice tells me just the opposite. The most basic idea of justice is that the punishment must be deserved, and certainly you don’t deserve punishment for something I have done. If justice can mean that, then logic can mean that truth must be contradictory. If I accept something so fundamentally contrary to my sense (of logic or of justice), then I might as well stop trying to “understand” the atonement at all. We might as well say that love requires us to needlessly torture those we love. The idea is just the exact opposite of everything we mean by love, just as penal substitution is the exact opposite of what we mean by justice.

    Does that help explain what I mean at all?

  21. 21 Jacob J August 2, 2007 at 2:18 am


    As to your question about Alma 34, that is a very big topic, that I can’t possibly cover in a short response here. When my paper was first published, an online letter to the editor made a somewhat similar argument as yours above and I responded rather briefly. You can read that (comments 2 and 3) here.

    When I wrote a post about penal substitution, we had a very in depth discussion of Alma 34 in the comments and I had a chance to discuss the text of Alma 34 in great detail. If you are interested in how I interpret that chapter, I would suggest reading my comments on that thread where I spent a lot of time going verse by verse to respond to various objections. I highly recommend the first 40 comments (and throw in comment #61).

  22. 22 LDS Anarchist October 22, 2007 at 3:16 am

    It seems to me that the obstacle that people seem to be having with this topic is the definition of eternal law. Roberts calls it “inexorable.” From the comments, it almost seems like certain people think that eternal law is some written text in heaven, like we have here on earth. D&C 88: 7-13 pretty clearly shows what the eternal law is and also shows that that law is alive. It’s a living thing. Living things are capable of compassion and mercy and this is why the atonement of Christ works, despite the fact that one man cannot justifiably pay the penalty of another. When we repent, Christ shows his suffering and death, and makes his plea to the Father and the entire created Universe, which are demanding that the law be executed. As soon as the tremendous suffering of Christ is manifested to the ensemble, discerned by the Spirit, all creation’s bowels are filled with compassion and they change their minds. The sin of the person is then forgiven. Christ illustrated this principle in 3 Ne. 17: 4-7 when he was about to leave but looked around and saw that they desired that he stay. His bowels were filled with compassion and he stayed instead of leaving. This is what happens on a Universal scale concerning sin and forgiveness. The magnitude of suffering of the Christ had to be such that not a single living thing in the Universe would not be moved to compassion and change its mind concerning the inflicted penalty.

    Another illustration is this: John 8: 10-11. There must be someone who accuses someone else of wrongdoing, otherwise, the law’s penalty cannot be executed. Christ’s atonement effectively takes away every accuser (for the penitent,) leaving the sinner free to go.

  23. 23 Eric Nielson October 27, 2007 at 10:46 am

    If I understand right, you are forwarding an empathy model, that satisfies the law from the persepective of all possible accusers?

  24. 24 LDS Anarchist October 27, 2007 at 9:03 pm

    I guess you can call it that. In any court, there must be a judge, the accused and the accuser(s). There may also be lawyers present, representing the accused and/or the accusers. In our heavenly “court case,” those who repent get a lawyer, Jesus, who essentially says, “Hey, look at me. I did no wrong, yet I suffered severely in this manner. [Shows his suffering and death.] Do not accuse this man (or woman.) Let my suffering suffice for the penalty required by the law.” The accusers, upon gazing upon his suffering and discerning the intensity of it by the Spirit, are moved to compassion. The Father (the judge) calls forth the accusers and no one shows. No one makes an accusation. There is no case. The Father then releases the [un-]accused into the custody of Jesus, who then passes a judgment on us (he becomes our Judge) and assigns us one of the three degrees of glory.

    On the other hand, the unrepentant show up for their case and Jesus doesn’t own them, he doesn’t represent them. They are on their own. The Father calls for the accusations against them and the Universe accuses and shows the evidence, which the accused cannot deny. The penalty is inflicted: expulsion from the kingdoms of glory (inner light) into outer darkness. (There is only one penalty for disobeying the laws of the Universe, the second death.)

    In this way, the Father gets to show both justice and mercy by using the death and suffering of his Son to manifest the mercy.

  25. 25 Eric Nielson October 28, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    An interesting explanation. Unfortunately, my analysis of such things is not instant. I will consider this explanation as I ponder the atonement.

  26. 26 Idetrorce December 15, 2007 at 9:12 am

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  1. 1 Roberts on the Attributes of God « Small and Simple Trackback on August 1, 2007 at 9:02 pm
  2. 2 The Compassionate Empathy Model of the Atonement « LDS Anarchy Trackback on January 13, 2008 at 6:23 am
  3. 3 Theories of Atonement « The Contrarian Mormon Trackback on February 22, 2010 at 2:17 pm

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