Christmas Means Nothing Without . . . Joseph Smith?

I’m so glad that we can join with other Christians who believe in Christ as we celebrate Christmas.

I heard a member of the Church quip that she hopes to not hear anything about Joseph Smith this month to allow us to focus on the love of Jesus Christ we share with so many of our neighbors.

But she doesn’t understand. The restored Gospel made Jesus Christ accessible to mankind again. It is the only reason I have a Christmas worth celebrating.

The Atonement in Our Lives

The pinnacle of Christ’s ministry was His atonement. To understand how the restored Gospel helps us find Christ, we must understand what the atonement is and how we connect to it.

The atonement of Christ allows humankind to live happy, fulfilling, and productive lives here and into eternity. Old Testament prophets, Christ Himself, and His apostles, all taught that the atonement should work for us three different ways

  1. Unconditional forgiveness from Adam’s sin. This allows us to be “agents unto ourselves.
  2. Forgiveness for our personal sins. This depends on us being born again through following the gospel and then giving a continual good faith effort to live like Christ did.
  3. Grace that comes after our conversion helping us towards exaltation. This includes Christ comforting us in our individual pains, providing the Holy Ghost, and giving us a capacity, greater than our own until we can “do all things through Christ.” 

The last two purposes of the atonement are conditional. We need to act to obtain them. Christ provides the structure necessary for us to do so. This includes:

  1. The doctrine He taught so we could understand the atonement
  2. The authority necessary to perform ordinances
  3. The church to provide support and help members endure to the end

Establishing Christ’s Legacy

Christ established a church through His twelve apostles that could carry out all three functions necessary for individuals to take advantage of all the blessings of the atonement. This structure helped prevent the followers of Christ from being, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.

After Christ’s ascension, the apostles and other early Christian missionaries traveled throughout the Mediterranean. They:

  1. Taught the doctrine of how the atonement blesses lives
  2. Performed the priesthood ordinances of baptism and conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost
  3. Established branches of the church that could help support new members to live the commandments

While traveling, Paul prophesied, “Grievous wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock.” That’s exactly what happened.

While Christianity spread, most congregations struggled from physical persecution from both Jews and Romans. So when Greek philosophers would teach an outlying Christian branch, the small struggling congregation would try to mix these philosophies with their Christian beliefs, so they could attract as many people as possible to their church and allow it to survive.

As long as the centralized church leadership remained; however, they could correct these false teachings. In an example of this, Paul wrote to a branch he had helped form, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ into another gospel” then proceeded to bring them back. 

Ultimately, however, persecution raged. Within seventy years of Christ’s death, all twelve apostles either died or were translated. No replacements were selected, and the centralized leadership of the church had died. This left every branch to fend for itself. Without the apostles to hold the church together, these congregations were “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” The church was in apostasy.

Dismantling Christ’s Legacy

The next two hundred years of doctrinal disaster is hard to follow because each congregation went in a different direction. But when they finally got together they disagreed about dozens of issues. During this period doctrines were lost, such as Christ’s ability to succor us individually.

Then in 320 AD, Constantine declared himself the leader of Christianity. At this time, Constantine wasn’t even baptized. If any priesthood authority had remained to this time, it was buried by this spiritually unauthorized political act.

As a politician, Constantine strove to unite the empire religiously. Not only did this mean everyone had to be Christian, but that Christians had to agree on what that meant. So in 325 the leaders of the surviving Christian groups gathered to decide doctrine. They couldn’t agree.

Of course, they couldn’t agree, they had had no revelation, no priesthood, no centralized church in about 250 years! So they voted on doctrines that would be militarily enforced.

Constantine then asked for an authoritative version of the Bible to be made. He assigned his political allies to the job.

Soon after, the doctrine of Christ was significantly altered by a writer named Augustine. Augustine was likely the most persuasive, influential Western writer in 300 years and for the next 1100.

His two literary masterpieces “Confessions” and “The City of God” may be the two best written non-scripture religious books ever.

They were also wrong. Very wrong.

Augustine developed a theory that humanity is depraved, or basically evil, in order to explain his struggle with sexual sin. To justify his new theory with religious teaching, Augustine pointed to Adam’s sin, and said all mankind was guilty for it. He came up with the phrase “original sin” to describe this idea.

This was a drastically new idea, created by Augustine alone. It did not draw on any prior Christian teaching or tradition.

Over the next 400 years, seven councils were convened to address a number of doctrinal questions. These councils voted for the doctrine of original sin, and voted down such essential doctrines as Christ’s individual nature, the plan of salvation, and our ability to access Christ’s atonement directly.

Augustine’s teaching of human depravity destroyed the doctrine of the atonement. Since man was no longer assumed innocent, he couldn’t be seen as having power over his own destiny.

Instead, the church decided man was something to be acted upon by the grace they gave out in ceremonies that, by this time, they had either messed up or made up.

The teachings that resulted from Augustine’s theory included that unbaptized babies would go to hell, man could do nothing on his own to work towards the blessings of the atonement, and the symbolism of rebirth was taken out of the gospel ordinances. The apostles had taught that grace was available to help man increase his capacity until he could do all things in Christ. This truth became hidden behind the belief that man had no capacity to do anything.

The Protestant Retrenchment

By the time the middle ages came to an end, connecting to Christ in an authentic, personal way was impossible. The officers of the church mediated everything.

Political change was in the air, and reformers started to address the doctrines that were keeping people from Christ.

But without heavenly revelation, these reformers couldn’t make the changes necessary to make sense of our relationship with Christ.

Luther, the first and most influential reformer, exemplified how authentic connection with Christ had been lost. He spent his early life consumed with guilt for his sins. He wanted forgiveness, but couldn’t find the grace he needed through the church’s ceremonies.

The ceremony that most irritated Luther was the selling of “indulgences.” This was an invented ordinance where one would pay money to receive forgiveness of sins.

The Church at the time justified this by explaining that good works were necessary for forgiveness, and that money donated to the Church could be used for good works.

This experience soured Luther on the idea of good works. As Luther continued his doctrinal explanation, he relied a lot on his early training in the Augustinian order. So rather than weed out Augustine’s idea of human depravity, he built upon it.

Luther theorized that grace was given directly to unworthy undeserving individuals. This belief became standard throughout Protestantism.

Certainly, reformers came up with many different teachings on how those individuals were chosen, from Lutheran faith’s justification to Calvinistic predetermination, but by removing the only step man was required to make, which was participating in church ceremonies, the teachings that came out of the reformation ended up even more negative about the nature of man than Augustine’s teachings had been.

These reformers started, literally, thousands of denominations with their own unique ideas, but the essential atonement doctrine was not corrected. Christianity was still lost, notwithstanding that today, there are over 45,000 unique Christian ways to be lost.

What We Lost

Imagine for a moment the practical effect that believing in this version of the atonement would have on your life.

Self-worth is basically tossed out of the window; every worthwhile thing you ever do is unlike your nature and worthless in your eternal progress. Not only was the priesthood gone to make the atonement effective, and the church gone to help the people live up to its requirements, the basic understanding of how the Savior could save you was gone.

Can we begin to see how this apostasy made it impossible to understand, feel, or utilize the grandeur of Christ’s atonement?

But frankly, looking around the dark ages, there were few signs that humans were anything but depraved. Scientific advancement stagnated. Artistic ingenuity languished. If you looked at the underlying doctrine of human worth there was nothing besides the light of Christ burning within you to tell you that mankind had great inherent worth.

But the Protestant Reformation coincided with a renaissance in human ingenuity. The human progress of the next several centuries proved that mankind was not uncontrollably evil and capable of nothing. But how could Christian teachings acknowledge the now obvious power of man without abandoning the necessity of grace? Only by a restoration of the original doctrine of the atonement:

  1. Unconditional forgiveness from Adam’s sin. 
  2. Forgiveness for our personal sins, after all we can do.
  3. Grace that comes after our conversion helping us towards exaltation. 

The Restoration

Peter had prophesied, “The heavens must receive [Jesus Christ] until . . . A prophet the Lord your God shall raise up . . . like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things.”

Then came the spring of 1820, and oh, how lovely was the morning, because when Joseph Smith prayed he went around the centuries of doctrinal brush and mud, and man was reconnected to God.

In clear language, Christ confirmed a complete apostasy had occurred, but with this manifestation, the road back to fully utilizing and understanding the atonement was opened.

The Book of Mormon restored the doctrine. John the Baptist restored the authority. And Christ taught Joseph Smith how to reorganize the church.

The Book of Mormon presented the ways that the grace of Christ can bless our lives.

1. The unconditional forgiveness for Adam’s sin allowing us to act for ourselves.

Mormon taught, “Little children are whole, the curse of Adam is taken from them in [Christ.]” Man is then neither basically good nor basically evil, but whole, and free to become good or evil.

King Benjamin taught that we either, “Listeth (or lean) to obey the evil spirit” or “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” these paths, King Benjamin explained, either lead us to, “Become an enemy of all righteousness,” or “become a saint through the atonement,” respectively.

As Lehi explains, this clean slate allows us to act, rather than be acted upon

2. Forgiveness of our personal sins, dependent on being born again and giving a continual good faith effort to live like Christ did.

Living in a world with free choice and sin, inevitably we all sin. King Benjamin makes clear that those who knowingly sin are not innocent, but neither, completely evil and powerless to work on their own salvation. They can, of their own free will and work, utilize the atonement through “repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Similarly, Alma the Younger reminded the people of their fathers who had once been “encircled about by the chains of hell,” and he asks, “What grounds had they to hope for salvation?” In answering his own question Alma teaches, “A mighty change was wrought in their hearts, and they were faithful unto the end; therefore they were saved.” They were, they did something.

They didn’t earn salvation by themselves, their earlier sins prevented that, but their work still qualified them for their salvation. Later in the same sermon, in order to clarify this relationship, Alma uses the example of a garment that must be clean to enter into the kingdom of God. While it was man who actually did the physical work of “washing” their garments, “they were cleansed . . . in the blood of Christ.”

Simply scrubbing in the air or on a rock would not clean a dirty shirt, they needed a cleansing agent, a soap, the blood of Christ, but neither can soap clean our clothes without our own scrubbing power, either.

Christ himself explained what was involved in this work of washing the garment, or “mighty change of heart” to the Nephites. “Whoso shall have faith in me, repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day.” This is the process we know as the gospel of Jesus Christ.

3. Grace that comes after our conversion helping us towards exaltation.

The understanding of the grace we are given as Nephi taught, “line upon line, precept upon precept,” after we are baptized as we strive to reach our ultimate goal. “What manner of men ought ye to be?” Christ asked the Nephites, “Even as I am.”

On our own, we are not capable of reaching this goal of becoming like Christ, but Moroni teaches, “If [we] will have faith in Christ, [we] shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient, or necessary, in him.

And ultimately this Christ-like persona that we are hoping to attain will be “bestowed upon all who are true followers of . . . Jesus Christ,” so , “that when he shall appear we shall be like him. ”it’s only through Christ we can be like Christ. To enable us to endure the trials of life and remain faithful, Alma taught, “Christ will take upon him [our] infirmities . . . that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people.”

How many times have we skimmed the sermon of King Benjamin, without appreciating the precious understanding he returned to mankind?

How often do we take Alma the younger for granted as just another prophet who taught the Atonement or Mormon as what people call us without cherishing the clarity he brought to our relationship with God?

In this single volume, in The Book of Mormon, our Heavenly Father washed away the twisted, crumbling, tower of false, ineffective atonement doctrine, and in its place built a clear, straight and narrow road back to His glory.

Once the doctrine of how we could access the blessings of the atonement was restored, then the priesthood necessary for the ordinances of the gospel, and the church to support us, were restored.

It was through Joseph Smith the world again learned the truth of how the atonement can bless us. It cleared up the confusion; we understood our relationship to Christ, why He died for us, how that can help us, what we’re capable of and responsible for. The centuries of political changes and theological missteps in Christ’s gospel was overshadowed in a few short years.

Joseph Smith gave us the doctrine to understand the atonement, the priesthood to make it effective, and the church to help us live it.

The only reason Joseph Smith is worth talking about today is because he taught a confused world how to come to Christ.

So, no, I will not stop talking about the restoration and Joseph Smith.  There is no understandable, effective Christianity without the restoration. There is no Christmas worth celebrating without the Jesus the restoration taught. It is the reason I am here. It has saved me. God be praised for it. Merry Christmas!

Christopher D. Cunningham is the managing editor for Public Square Magazine and contributor to Third Hour. He loves emphatically celebrating the normal healthy development of his sons Albus and Whitman, writing about the Church of Jesus Christ, finding the middle ground on most controversies, and using Western Family generic brand lip balm. Christopher is a proud graduate of Brigham Young University-Idaho, and a resident of San Antonio, Texas.