A cross in front of the Salt Lake Temple

The Vicarious Atonement: A Proclamation to Latter-day Saints

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

2 Corinthians 5:21

Disclaimer: In this article, I use The Book of Mormon. It was an instrument God used, in conjunction with the Bible, to open my eyes to the vicarious atonement. While I no longer believe The Book of Mormon to be scripture, my audience does. This is not an attack on the restored gospel, but an attempt at teaching a life-giving principle from your trusted sources.

What if I told you the cross was a temple?

Not in the sense that Elder Holland referred to Carthage Jail as a temple. I mean a literal temple where a vicarious work was done on our behalf.

Now hold that thought and come with me to the beginning.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

This verse shows a direct correlation between righteousness and entering heaven. The question is, how much righteousness is required?

God’s standard is revealed in Matthew 5:48 when Jesus says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

This puts mankind in a precarious situation because perfection is impossible to achieve (Matthew 19:26).

The Book of Mormon itself portrays the strict obedience we must display. It says that God can’t save us in our sins (Alma 11:37), nor can he look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (Alma 45:16).

In other words, we shouldn’t expect God to be impressed if we show up on judgment day with an A- on our spiritual report cards.

James 2:10 takes things further, saying: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

This means a score of A- is impossible. We’ll either have a score of 100 or a score of 0. We are either in Christ or outside Christ, either on His right hand or His left. Consider this, not once in scripture is someone deemed partially righteous.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “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.” (Matthew 5:18).

As long as heaven and earth stand, God’s standard is in force. If we break even one iota of God’s law, we stand condemned.

This is why Romans 3:10 says: “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one.

With this in mind, I invite you to consider the present state of your journey. Are you perfect in every word, deed, and thought? Or do you struggle with sin?

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and assume you’re not perfect. If so, the message of the vicarious atonement is for you.

The Good News

Colossians 2:13-14 teaches the vicarious atonement in a nutshell. It reads:

13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;

14 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross;

As a Latter-day Saint, you are uniquely suited to understand this passage. We have broken God’s law and stand condemned. Furthermore, we have no ability to pull ourselves free from the muck of sin.

For all intents and purposes, we are dead. This is why we need a vicarious atonement.

This runs parallel to temple theology. According to your doctrine, the dead cannot receive ordinances, so a living person must do it for them. Once a proxy ordinance is done, the dead person merely has to accept what has been done on their behalf.

This is called imputation. In other words, your act of righteousness (i.e. getting baptized, endowed, or sealed) is accredited to the dead as if they did it themselves.

Now imagine there was a super ordinance that granted every commandment and covenant, as if you lived them perfectly.

That is exactly what Jesus did on the cross. And all we have to do is accept it.

In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says he did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. In other words, his entire life was a vicarious ordinance. Jesus obeyed every iota, jot, and tittle of the law. Then he went to the cross and traded His righteousness for our sin.

This is why Romans 5:10 associates our salvation not only with Christ’s death, but with His life. It says:

10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.

Biblical Evidence for Imputation

Since our righteousness comes from without, it’s called Alien Righteousness. This is what Paul refers to in Philippians 3:9 when he says he doesn’t have a righteousness of his own.

Romans 10:2-4 says:

2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.

3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.

If we’re trying to become righteous through obedience, we’ve missed the mark. Our goal shouldn’t be to establish our righteousness, but to acquire His.

This leaves us with no reason to lean on temple covenants for our salvation. Since Jesus lived perfectly by proxy, Christ Himself is the one we should rely on. Verse 4 explains that imputation occurs at faith.

Romans 4:3-5 says:

3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.

4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.

5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness

The point Paul makes, is we gain imputed righteousness when we believe in Christ (see also Romans 4:23-24). He goes on to say that those who do not work are the ones who will be justified. Why? Because God justifies the ungodly.

That sounds backward, but think about it like this: would you do baptisms for the dead if your ancestors were all baptized? Of course not, that would be pointless.

In the same way, a vicarious atonement doesn’t work on the righteous.

Galatians 5:4-5 hammers this point in:

4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.

5 For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.

What This Means For You

So how does imputation fit into LDS theology? I don’t think it does. Aside from symbolism in the temple that happens to promote imputation, this Biblical doctrine is at odds with restored theology.

Think about it. If Christ’s worthiness is accredited to us at faith, the first principle on the LDS ladder to exaltation, what need is there for baptisms, endowments, and sealings?

If Jesus was worthy to enter the Father’s presence when he died on the cross, then so are we when we accept the vicarious atonement through faith.

When the Israelites were bitten by venomous snakes, Moses raised up a brass serpent. All the afflicted had to do was look at it to be healed, but because it was easy, they died instead.

This is a wonderful expression of the cross. We’ve all been bitten by the cunning serpent and sin has poisoned our bloodstream. We are dead men walking. But just as Moses lifted the serpent, so was Jesus raised upon the cross. If we look we will be healed.

1 Corinthians 1:18 reads: For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

I implore you, my friends, do not be deceived by the easiness of the way. Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30).

The message of the vicarious atonement is simple: your work has been done. It is finished (John 19:30).