Do Mormon Kids Understand the Atonement?

HawkgrrrlMormon 37 Comments

Does the church teach that we are saved by grace or that we are saved by works?  This is one of the most oft-repeated criticisms of the Mormon church by other churches, that we don’t correctly understand the atonement of Jesus.

In a recent talk, the speaker had attended an interesting interview with an evangelical who had converted from Mormonism because of what he felt was a misunderstanding on our part of the atonement, that Jesus’ atonment was in fact personal and not just for mankind.  This idea that there might be other youth who misunderstand the theology prompted the speaker to open a discussion with the youth.  He shared the following quiz questions with the youth in the stake.  I thought I would post the 4 true/false questions here for our readers:

  1. The church does NOT teach that we are saved by grace.
  2. The church teaches that we are saved by works.
  3. The final judgment will be like legal scales; if your good works outweigh your bad works, you will be rewarded.
  4. We will get the reward we’ve earned.

Most of the youth surveyed correctly answered #1 and #2; however, #3 and #4 were a mixed bag, with a split down the middle in understanding the atonement as revealed by those questions.  Why is this?  Here are some theories:

  • The “church” is just a group of people who don’t always understand the gospel.
  • The doctrine of salvation (three degrees of glory) adds in a meritocracy component missing in a pass/fail (e.g. Heaven/Hell)construct.
  • Other Christian sects essentially wage war on “works” (as if works undermine grace) to illustrate that Mormons aren’t Christians.  Mormons are on the defensive on this point theologically, which results in over-emphasis of works in our teaching.
  • Mormonism as a community is highly focused on outward behaviors (works) which are measurable rather than the internal behaviors such as belief and acceptance of grace (in other sects, witnessing). 
  • Even though both are emphasized, works are easier to grasp because they are “controllable.”  Kids especially want to know what they have to do (the rules) to meet minimum requirements because kids need structure.

The speaker also distinguished between mercy (not getting something bad that you deserve) and grace (getting something good that you haven’t earned).

So, are we failing to clearly teach the concept of atonement to our youth or do they understand it?  Does the community speak louder than the theology?  Discuss.

Comments 37

  1. What’s the answers to #3 and #4?

    We can’t teach our youth if the we don’t understand it as parents either.

    I would say 3 is false and 4 is true. Am I wrong?

    My good friend who converted from being a Baptist says it bothers him the Church members place way too much emphasis on works and our quest to progress, when he feels we too often miss the fact that it is after all we can do, that Christ makes it possible to progress (His grace). I agree with him.

  2. I agree with all the theories. 3 & 4 are both false (#4 depending on what you mean by “earned”, where I would rather use the word “merited” or “remained open to” or “proven faithful with”, etc. and then give #4 a TRUE)

  3. Great post! This is an area where, IMO, the culture of the church does not represent the true doctrine of our religion. From what I have learned, we believe that we are saved by grace. We are perfected in Jesus Christ. This does not imply that we should not be involved in good works, which help us to develop Christ like qualities. It just emphasizes the fact that our works could never be enough. It is truly by grace that we are saved.

    I think it is up to me, as a parent, to make sure that my children understand this.

  4. 1. False
    2. mostly false
    3. false
    4. somewhat true

    We cannot earn either mercy or grace on our own. However, Christ has set some ground rules which, if we follow them, he has promised us his mercy and grace (according to the definitions above, which I have never before heard explained that way, but I like them). Sometimes when we say we “earn” salvation, we mean we are obeying the prerequ’s to receive Christ’s mercy and grace (i.e. by making and keeping covenants and repenting). So works are involved in our salvation, which is why #2 is only mostly false, and we get the reward we “earn” in the sense that we perform the acts of keeping our covenants and repenting and receive a promised (albeit not deserved) reward, so #4 is somewhat true.

  5. This is compartmentalizing where it isn’t needed. It’s like distinguishing between what is spiritual and what is temporal. In our Heavenly Father’s view, the two elements are ever present.

    In my view, one’s works are a constant demonstration of one’s belief. How can someone say “I accept Jesus as my savior” and display next-to-nothing in their behavior to show that they really believe it?

  6. Pinkpatent “IMO, the culture of the church does not represent the true doctrine of our religion” I’m not sure about the US, but in the UK I there is more congruence between the culture & doctrine. I would make a bold sweeping statement for the whole UK “we believe that through works we are protected from the pitfalls of life, through works we demonstrate our inward commitment, through works we build greater Christlike attributes. However it is through mercy we overcome mistakes, through mercy we acquire forgiveness and are sanctified. and by the Grace of Christ we receive the reward that our heart can stand.

  7. So perhaps the problem with a survey results is less about teens answering wrong but more from making a question reflect clear doctrinal questions.

    It seems most answers are more like “Yes and No” on this subject.

    I think grace and works are inseperable. You can’t have hope of good works without the grace of God to help you, and you can’t qualify for the grace of God without a willing heart and contrite spirit, and then show your faith through your works.

  8. Post

    The speaker (and I agree with him) said all 4 statements were false. 3 is false because we are always going to be “weighed in the balances and found wanting” and 4 because it’s not possible to “earn” salvation. Our good works will always be insufficient to merit it.

    Of course, this discussion reinforces the point nicely.

  9. #8 This may be belaboring the point a little, but these T/F questions suffer from the problem of most T/F questions, because they do not address complexity or ambiguity. They are liable to confuse kids about the atonement as much as help them if they are treated as truths rather than jumping off points for discussion. They’re kind of like the Tuesday AM polls we used to have on one of these blogs (what happened to those, anyway?). They’re fine for discussion, but not to convey eternal truths.

    If a kid told me he thought #4 was true, I’d want to know why, then explain that in one sense, he could be right, etc. etc. It may be a more complex answer, but it is also a truer answer than a mere (yes/no, T/F).

  10. And another thing…

    It’s helpful to understand the context in which Paul taught about how works cannot save us. He was not arguing that our works have no value. He was arguing that strictly practicing the Law of Moses could not save those of his day. Only the resurrected Christ could do that.

    Today we refer to works as more than just the Law of Moses, and it is true that none of our works will save us, but we should be careful not to stress works any less than Christ did. The gospels are replete with admonitions to do certain works, and how if we do not do the works, we cannot be saved.

    I understand that in the past members of our Church may have pushed the grace/works pendulum to over-emphasize works, but it’s just as harmful to over-emphasize grace alone, as I believe the above T/F questions do (without appropriate explanation).

  11. I think the delineation between mercy and grace is an interesting one that I probably knew intuitively, but had never articulated. Our atonement discussion often focuses on justice v. mercy, but “grace” is a term we only seem to use in conjunction with being saved by it (and at that, only because other Churches have set up the discussion that way). The “tender mercies” of the Lord might often be called graces. And while we may eventually be saved through grace, we are certainly also blessed by it throughout our life.

  12. I agree with others who have said the test is helpful, but at the same time creates confusion without an explanation.

    I also agree that many members of the church struggle answering these questions.

  13. Perhaps the problem is that the atonement cannot be understood, only experienced. Like Kierkegaard, I don’t understand it. It is a rational absurdity. That forces its experience to be a leap of faith, a decision about something we will never get our minds around. I can’t make sense of the atonement, but I can experience it.

  14. Salvation consists of two element–1) immortality 2) eternal life

    In other words, “it is an inheritance in the highest heaven of the celestial world”. To inherit all that the Father hath.

  15. I’m not sure I understand the atonement, despite reading some impressive expositions about it by people like Gene England and Lowell Bennion. I’m not sure I understand why it was necessary to sacrifice God’s son by torture in order that we might be saved. It seems to me like a pretty barbaric holdover from the days when human sacrifice was thought to be a necessary part of religion. I also don’t understand a God that would ask Abraham to kill his son, drown all of his creations, including many innocent children and animals by flooding the earth, order his people to massacre cities, etc. I’ve heard lots of “explanations”, but none of them convince me that the person giving the explanation really understands it either.

  16. threadjack:
    Geb, welcome to the world of those of us who don’t understand God.

    There are two ways to approach these questions: (1) I won’t believe it until I understand it, or (2) I believe in God, so Lord, please help me understand.

    I hope you are taking the second approach. To say I have found it fulfilling is a profound understatement.

  17. Post

    Personally I think the atonement only really makes sense to me with Jesus as a Bodhisattva – a willing sacrifice who has progressed to this stage of his development. And Mormon theology, among all Christian religions, is the only one I’ve seen that matches that concept up – that atonement is a step in progress toward godhood.

  18. It is important to understand how repentance works in all of this. We are only saved by grace, however, we need repentance in order to have mercy granted to us by God. Alma chapter 12 is a good source for that doctrine. The atonement of Christ makes our repentance valid.

    Teach children that we are saved by grace. Teach them that repentance allows us to live in God’s presence.

  19. Geb; “I know that he (God) loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things”

    when it comes to adults I think the emphasis of Works & Grace seem to ebb & flow during our spiritual progression. many times at Church we hear what we need to hear at the time. I think many teens may misunderstand, but perhaps at this stage of spiritual progression misunderstanding this principle can be a good thing. Even though many children may misunderstand this principle, when asked in a T/F format. they have a innate belief that when they die they will see God regardless of eating all there Veg.

  20. I think understanding the atonement comes with our developing relationship with the Lord. Experiences with Him, such as feeling of His healing power, or His forgiving nature help us come closer to understanding it, but I think to really understand it in totality will not be until the next life. Having said that, I don’t believe children really understand it and I think it is a life long process of experience that helps us to grasp and understand it more fully.

    I think we are saved by the grace of God and what resides in our heart. There are many who desire to do many good things, but due to circumstances are unable. I truly believe that the good we would have done, were we in different circumstances, will be considered by the Lord as well. Conversely, if we seek to do evil in our hearts, yet appear to do “good works” I believe those “good works” will be meaningless. Basically, I think the heart decides where we belong and where we truly want to be. If we have a heart that loves God and is willing to do all that He asks, I believe we will find ourselves with Him in the end.

  21. I think that it has been a more recent teaching of the Church that grace is essential for our salvation and exaltation. Years ago, it seems that Church leaders seemed to emphasize only good works. Perhaps I wasn’t listening carefully, but I don’t remember much being taught about grace when I was growing up.

    I really like Elder Bednar’s teaching about the relationship of grace and works. He said:

    “Prophets throughout the ages have emphasized the dual requirements of (1) avoiding and overcoming bad and (2) doing good and becoming better. Consider the penetrating questions posed by the Psalmist: ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully’ (Psalm 24:3–4).

    “Brothers and sisters, it is possible for us to have clean hands but not have a pure heart. Please notice that both clean hands and a pure heart are required to ascend into the hill of the Lord and to stand in His holy place.

    “Let me suggest that hands are made clean through the process of putting off the natural man and by overcoming sin and the evil influences in our lives through the Savior’s Atonement. Hearts are purified as we receive His strengthening power to do good and become better. All of our worthy desires and good works, as necessary as they are, can never produce clean hands and a pure heart. It is the Atonement of Jesus Christ that provides both a cleansing and redeeming power that helps us to overcome sin and a sanctifying and strengthening power that helps us to become better than we ever could by relying only upon our own strength. The infinite Atonement is for both the sinner and for the saint in each of us (“Ensign,” Nov 2007, 80–83).”

  22. #18. Hawkgrrl. Me to.

    Have you read Rene Girard? 30 years ago with friends we had a back and forth on the “works” v. “grace/faith” issue. I now believe it to be a false dichotomy. Once I totally let go of PENAL SUBSTITUTION and RANSOM or CREDITOR/DEBTOR models, it was like coming out of a fog. Jesus is the first son of God to progress to point of making a perfect non-violent offering (see Matthew 5: 48 which perfection follows loving enemies until death–and then it is finished). The miracle is the resurrection. It then becomes the sign and token given by the Gods that it is His life we emulate. The Gods do not demand blood or punishment for sin—we do. We do the stoning and demand penal justice. They only invite us to understand that it is all about RESTORATIVE JUSTICE, ie, we are what we are and if we repent, then the suffering ends—just come follow me and quit scapegoating each other and for sure take me off the cross—no more shedding of blood or thinking you need to–
    So God if complete grace/forgiveness even enemies and invites us to do the same, BUT the justice/restorative still remains and we will suffer until we do likewise. that is the atonement/reconciliation for me.

  23. Works are much simpler to understand for someone in the concrete operational stage. Grace is more abstract. It seems to me these are just children progressing through normal stages of understanding.

  24. Post

    It seems that when we talk about Jesus (and the atonement) we usually do it in relation to someone else:
    – Jesus (and atonement) in relation to The Father.
    – Jesus (and atonement) in relation to the world.
    – Jesus (and atonement) in relation to me personally (or the sinner).

    What we don’t talk about enough in Christianity, IMHO, is Jesus (and atonement) in relation to Jesus and His development. What did it mean to him? Even when we try, we drag the conversation kicking and screaming back to his relationship with the Father, the world, or us personally.

  25. “Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness and love God with all your might, mind, and strength, then is his Grace sufficient for you, that by his Grace ye may be perfect in Christ…” Moro: 10:32

    If one strives to be perfected and deny all ungodliness, then they must be involved with doing “good works”, in order to accomplish “being perfected”.

  26. 24 – That’s true. I’ve certainly never heard grace mentioned in Primary. The Atonement is only talked about in very simple terms, of course. Most lessons are focused on what the kids are supposed to DO (keep the commandments, follow the Prophet, plan to go to the temple, pay tithing, etc). Perhaps because they would have difficulty understanding anything less concrete.

  27. #25-

    I think we don’t talk about it because Jesus came here as a perfect being so where do you go from there? As far as what I think it meant to Him, I think it was something He was looking forward to getting over with honestly. I can’t imagine that it meant a lot to Him during the process of it occurring and in fact, I think His will to do the Father’s will was so strong that it was the only thing that kept Him going. I think after He died, the rewards came to Him and He could see the greatness of what He had done, but as far as what it did for His development, I don’t think we can comprehend where you go from perfect, so it is hard to consider.

  28. Sincere question:

    How often is the word “atonement” used in most other denominations?

    I think historically we haven’t taught grace explicitly because it underscores our teaching of the atonement. They say “grace”; we say “atonement”. (You say “potayto”; I say “potahto”.) Frankly, Mormonism teaches grace more comprehensively than almost any other Christian denomination. We just didn’t use that word actively until recently – and I’m very happy about the change, especially since we reject totally the concept of “easy grace” that is divorced totally from works and contradicts itself in many constructs.

    If anyone is interested in a long post about this general topic, I wrote “Embracing Grace” almost two years ago on my personal blog:

  29. Oh, and Hawk, if the question of the post title is in relation to how well other Christian kids understand the Atonement, my answer would be:

    “Amazingly well, even though not nearly well enough and even with obvious common inaccuracies.”

  30. Post

    Ray, I think you have hit the nail on the head! And frankly, it goes to the heart of most debates between Mormons and other Christian sects: word choice.

  31. I’ve been mulling over what I understand about the atonement and I think it’s most influenced by a clear recollection I had from childhood about sin and heaven. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 and had this picture in my mind of a note book in heaven with may name in it and every time I did something bad a check mark was made by my name and if I got too many marks I wouldn’t go to heaven. I remember wondering how many I would have to get to not be able to get in and if I was just one over the line would God still not let me in. There was nothing in all of this about repentance and being able to erase some of the marks. Interestingly over the years I’ve mentioned it to others and had them say that they had the same idea. I almost started to think it was part of the primary curriculum back them. And as I said in spite of all I’ve been taught since, my belief about the atonement is still colored by those thoughts. No erasing and one mark over the line and you’re toast.

  32. You wrote:” Does the church teach that we are saved by grace or that we are saved by works? This is one of the most oft-repeated criticisms of the Mormon church by other churches, that we don’t correctly understand the atonement of Jesus.”

    I want to comment about those rows that are connected to atonement.


    How to live in order to enable the Creator in His loving kindness to provide His kipur –atonement- is outlined in Tan’’kh ; and was also taught by Ribi Yehoshua. The first century Ribi Yehoshua from Nazareth (the Mashiakh; the Messiah) taught in accordance with Tan’’kh the only way to get connection with the Creator, This way is found both in Torah and in Ribi Yehoshuas teachings found in our website –

    Anders Branderud

  33. #32 I heard a powerful testimony by a man who pleaded that we not teach our children that sins are like nails in a board and repenting is like pulling them out. Any carpenter can pull a nail, only our Saviour can make it so there never was a hole in the wood.

  34. I think that what our kids know about the gospel in general is far greater than most kids their age in other churches. The atonement is a complex subject and many adult members do not grasp the basic. I am amazed at the lack of understadning that i still have even after intensive study of the subject.

    The fact is: We are asked by the Savior to obey His commandments (“If you love me…”); However, without the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we could never do enough to warrant any reward in heaven. He basically says: “I give you grace and mercy, you give me your obedience and your repentance.”

  35. I really like the #6 response from MrQandA. Here’s something to think about:
    Revelation 20:12,13
    And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
    And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

    2 Nephi 25:23
    For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.

  36. Lots of great comments!

    On #4, there is no way we can “earn” the glorious gifts that God has in store for his children. But according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, there are certain things that we must do sooner or later to “qualify” for them.

    The difference between earn and qualify is the difference between a child actually paying for her own piano lessons or satisfying the terms of the parent/child agreement that would, for example, include regular practice.

    A child could practice all day long without paying for the lessons. But any parent would be willing to pay for the lessons of such a child.

    I agree with Ron M about the atonement. Penal substitution is a poor metaphor for the atonement in comparison with the metaphor preferred by the Lord himself, that of becoming a father to mankind. He took upon himself the agonizing responsibility of repairing all of the damage (whether emotional, physical, or other spritual damage) inflicted upon the earth and its inhabitants. All of that restoration, reconciliation, and reunification or “at-one-ment” has to be done sooner or later. The Lord’s creation cannot be left in an eternal mess. So who is going to do it? Who should do it?

    The people that made the mess are powerless and for the most part unwilling to clean it up by themselves.

    The atonement consists of the Lord’s willingness to submit to the will of our heavenly Father and say, “The Buck Stops Here.”

    A true disciple of Christ will volunteer to help him as much as possible with that restoration and repair. The Lord knows that many will share his yolk. That must bring him great joy to associate with such appreciative beings.

    The Lord loves a cheerful giver. He loves everybody, but has a special place in his heart for the cheerful giver.

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