The Efficacy of Vicarious Atonement

I have decided to skip a couple of chapters and get right to what I consider one of the key points in B.H. Roberts views on the atonement – The Efficacy of Vicarious Atonement (Chapter 45).

Roberts starts by vaguely and loosely defining the law of righteousness. He believes that all sin is followed by suffering. Sin is defined as the transgression of moral law. He admits that exactly what constitutes moral law is debatable, and will be different for different people depending on their circumstances. Violating this moral law will be followed by suffering from a sense of shame and sorrow, etc.

Roberts argues that spiritual suffering is just as real as physical pain. And that just as physical events can cause pain, injury, scars, and even death to the body, so to can sin cause pain and injury to the mind and spirit. Suffering because of our own sins is the first of four types of suffering Roberts offers.

The second type of suffering comes from the sins of others. Many have experienced this type of suffering. Sin may not only affect the sinner but those around him in a direct way.

The third type of suffering is that of common human sympathy. While we may not be directly affected by the sin of others, observing sin and its affects can be distressing.

The fourth type of suffering gets into vicarious suffering, or the willingness to suffer for others. Roberts gives the example of David and his ‘worthless’ son Absalom. Absalom had spent much of his life warring against the honor and interests of his father. But when David heard news of his son’s death he cried, ‘Oh Absalom, my son! Would to God I had died for thee!’ (2 Sam. 18:33) Many parents may feel similar to David in their willingness to suffer for the benefit of their children. That is so much of what charitable sacrifice means – being willing to suffer something for the benefit of others. We observe that at various levels very frequently. What mother has not done this to admirable levels for her children? If these feelings of charitable sacrifice through love are felt so deeply by imperfect mortals, how much deeper and more perfectly might it be felt by God?

Roberts makes it clear that he is not suggesting that mortal men can suffer for the sin of other people. I believe that is what Amulek was getting at in Alma 34. This type of suffering and sacrifice for other’s sins must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice. It is here that Roberts asserts that there must be room in the eternal economy of all things for a perfect expression of self-sacrificing love. It is a beautiful concept. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). Roberts suggests that this vicarious suffering is a necessity if there are to be supreme manifestations of love.

From this, one may conclude that for the law to be fulfilled and complete, not only is vicarious atonement possible and just, but it is a necessity. There is no other way for mankind to be healed from the spiritual injuries from sin, and no better way for God to be able to express his great love for us, than by this great and eternal sacrifice!

Up to this point in this series I have tried to stick to reviewing Roberts views on the atonement. I feel that I have benefited from reading his thoughts. I thought I might pass something on of my own (sort of). Last Sunday as I was reading and pondering on the atonement I decided to go out to my backyard, which is one of my favorite places, to think and to pray about all this. I was hoping to come to a better understanding. I was out there a long time. Eventually I had a type of conversation in my head, that I believe had something of inspiration behind it. Some of the understanding I felt I got goes much deeper than my simple attempts at words can express, but here goes…

What is the point of the atonement?

Men must be reconciled to God.

How are men reconciled to God?

By coming forth with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

What if they don’t?

Then they must continue to suffer from sin.

What happens when they do?

Because of the atonement, Christ can heal them from the affects of sin, and thus they are reconciled with God. It is the same for everyone.

Well, memory is already starting to fade the words. The above may not seem all that profound to some readers, but it was for me. It is not much more than one might expect from a children’s lesson manual. But there was something much more real about it. Blast my feeble attempts at writing it! I don’t pretend to know as much as I should about the atonement, but I was glad to study it these last few weeks. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and I welcome your comments.

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13 Responses to “The Efficacy of Vicarious Atonement”


  1. 1 J. Stapley August 9, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    What happens when they do?

    Because of the atonement, Christ can heal them from the affects of sin, and thus they are reconciled with God. It is the same for everyone.

    This is the interesting thing: What about the atonement gave Christ the ability to heal the penitent?

  2. 2 Eric Nielson August 9, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    Thanks for reading and leaving a comment J.

    The real and honest answer is I don’t know. My current guess would be something along the lines of communication of love and trust which can remove the affects of shame and grief in the here and now.

    I still ultimately believe that eternally speaking the atonement will also allow Christ to be the perfect judge at the final judgement. I base this on Mosiah 3.

    Thanks again J. If you have any thoughts on this I would be glad to hear them.

  3. 3 Matt W. August 9, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Eric: An Underlying Assumption here, which is given is that man needs to be reconciled with God. I don’t disagree with this, but I was wondering what you have gleaned from Roberts on the what,wherefore, and why of this…

  4. 4 Eric Nielson August 9, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    Hey Matt. Thanks for stopping by.

    Your observation was part of one of the chapters I skipped. Imagine that. From chapter 44 we have this:

    Man, when he sins by breaking the laws of God, sins, of cours, against divine law; commits a crime against the majesty of God, and thereby dishonors Him.

    and then,

    The penalty for the individual sins of men is a second spiritual death, not a physical death, not a separation of the spirit and the body of man … the individual is subject to a second spiritual death, to banishment from the presence of God; his spiritual union and communion with God is broken, and spiritual death ensues.

    I think this addresses your comment Matt. What is a separation from God called a spiritual death. Wherefore men suffer on account of sin and are helpless on their own. Why is because to kknowingly sin dishonors God.

    Maybe I should not have skipped this chapter for review.

  5. 5 Matt W. August 10, 2007 at 9:46 am

    THat’s pretty much a gospel principles answer. Nothing wrong with that, I am wonderig aloud here, but why does my breaking a commandment dishonour God? Further, I thought Roberts strictly seperated Law as an co-eternal entity from God. Curious.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson August 10, 2007 at 11:35 am

    I have to admit that I still don’t know exactly what you are getting at here. Let me try this –

    It seems like God works with us through covenants. We promise to do certain things, including keeping the commandments. God seems to really want us to keep commandments, and to promise to keep commandments. When we break our promises and commitments with God, it breaks the trust God can have in us. It damages our relationship with Him. We took upon ourselves his name at baptism, sacrament, ordination, temple, etc. And then we go and do something sinful.

    I guess I read Roberts differently. I think Roberts makes great effort to explain that God MUST be exactly consistent with eternal law. I would think Roberts would say it would be impossible to separate the two. On principle anyway. It is odd that we would read him so differently.

    I think that was why Jacob stated in an earlier comment that he felt Roberts went back and forth on atonement theory between satisfaction and penal substitution. Personally I do not think Roberts would really acknowledge that there was any difference between the two theories. To satisfy law would be to satisfy God and vice versa with no exceptions.

  7. 7 Matt W. August 10, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    Eric, I will need to think on this. It is a good observation regarding God’s submission to Eternal Law thus making God one with Eternal law. I do not know that we actually are reading him that differently. I guess I would say it dishonours us, and not that it dishonours God. Sorry I just got stuck on the wording the first time through…

  8. 8 J. Stapley August 10, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Eric, I’ve been traveling all week, so I have been offline, but to respond to your quesiton, I would simply state that the how is the question of atonement theory. What you outlined is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The how could be a penal-substitutionary or empathy, etc.

  9. 9 Eric Nielson August 10, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks Matt. Perhaps how it should be read is that our actions are sometimes an expression of our dishonor or disrespect towards God.

    J.

    I think you are right about this (are you refering to my experience I shared in the post?). This is probably more an increase in testimony for me about the gospel and the atonement than learning any details about how the atonement works.

    I believe Roberts is a clear believer in penal substitution theory as a variation of satisfaction theory. I think the interesting thing in this chapter is the idea than not only is vicarious suffering just, it is a requirement for expressing God-like love. Perhaps that is a part of what Gods do, express self-sacrificing love on behalf of the sins and weaknesses of others.

    I thought about the Abraham/Isaac experience in all of this. Both Abraham and Isaac showing a willingness to make a fairly ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps all of us will be need to be willing to make huge self-sacrificing love expressions, possibly through suffering, if we are to become Christlike people.

  10. 10 LDS Anarchist October 22, 2007 at 2:32 am

    J. Stapley asked, “What about the atonement gave Christ the ability to heal the penitent?”

    My understanding is that the laws of the Universe demand the second death as the penalty for the breaking of any of those laws. It was the suffering (and death and resurrection) of Christ that allows everything to happen. When we are penitent, Christ’s suffering is, essentially, shown to the created Universe and the Father, along with Christ’s plea, “Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.”

    The greatness of the suffering of the innocent Christ was of such magnitude that all creation, the whole Universe, cannot help but say, “Okay. It is enough. Do not apply the rule of justice. Allow mercy to be extended to the individual in question. Christ hath suffered and paid the penalty for him.” The penitent then can receive forgiveness from Christ, which is merely a communication of the knowledge that the Father and all the Universe no longer holds that individual guilty. In other words, he is justified. Once he realizes he is forgiven and justified, the burden of sin is lifted, as the penalty will not be applied to him.

    We came into this created Universe (2 Ne. 2: 14) from outer darkness (the uncreated Universe, i.e. the “compound in one” – 2 Ne. 2: 11) and we remain here by obedience to the laws of this Universe. The breaking of any of the laws requires expulsion from the Universe back to where we were brought from. Christ’s suffering allows us to overcome the breaking of any of these laws through our repentance and the forgiveness of our sins, allowing us to remain in the Universe in a resurrected body as inheritors of one of the three kingdoms of glory. The only ones who will “return again to their own place” (D&C 88: 32) from whence we all came will be the filthy still, which are those who refuse to repent, even after a thousand years of anguish and suffering, which suffering and anguish is to merely help these people to repent, so that they can remain in the Universe, and not to punish them.

    The Resurrection also plays into this, but that is a topic for another discussion.

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  1. 1 The Compassionate Empathy Model of the Atonement « LDS Anarchy Trackback on May 21, 2008 at 4:26 am
  2. 2 Theories of Atonement « The Contrarian Mormon Trackback on February 22, 2010 at 2:17 pm

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