Covenant Is Atonement
9 January 2022
This is a transcript of a talk that I gave to my ward, my local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, earlier today. Ward leaders asked me to talk about making and keeping covenants. So I’ve been thinking and praying about the topic. And I hope my comments will also be helpful for you.
Of course, the topic of covenants is always relevant at Church. But, to me, the topic seems particularly relevant now, given the challenges that we’re all facing.
It’s been a difficult time. Fear and mistrust have strained every aspect of society. They’ve strained our respect for institutions and leaders. They’ve even strained our empathy for ordinary people around us.
And that’s not just in the world out there. We’ve also felt this strain in the Church. Too often, we’ve expressed disagreements, and we’ve responded to disagreements, too carelessly. And the resulting words and feelings have separated some of us.
So what do covenants have to do with any of this? I’m going to propose to you that making and keeping covenants is a necessary part of overcoming the challenges we now face. And I’d also like to propose an expanded vision of what it means to keep our covenants.
Two Kinds of Unity
Generally speaking, there are two ways to overcome social division. One’s more superficial and the other more profound. The superficial way is compulsion. The profound way is cooperation.
Compulsion is force. It destroys agency. It hoards power. And it doesn’t need trust.
The scriptures associate compulsion and hoarding with Satan. They say that Satan “will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” The scriptures also say that Satan seeks to destroy our agency.
The form of social unity that one achieves alone, through compulsion, is ultimately slavery. We might think of it as the chains of hell. Or maybe it’s the zombie apocalypse. Either way, I’m pretty sure most of us don’t really want to live in that world.
Cooperation works differently. It creates agency. It shares power. And it requires trust.
The scriptures associate cooperation and sharing with Christ. They say that we’re “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” The scriptures also say that Christ seeks to make us “equal in power, and in might, and in dominion.”
But be careful. This is a different kind of dominion. The scriptures continue, “Thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” Again, that’s without compulsory means.
Then by what other means? The scriptures don’t make us guess. “By persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” In other words, the power that Christ seeks to share with us arises naturally from cooperation rather than compulsion.
And the form of social unity that we achieve together, through such cooperation, is ultimately friendship. Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant doesn’t know his master’s business. Instead, I’ve called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I’ve made known to you.” This seems to me to be the kind of relationship that most of us want to have with God and with each other.
Covenant and Atonement
So let’s return to covenants. I was surprised. And maybe you’ll be too. But it turns out that the words “covenant” and “atonement” mean pretty much the same thing.
“Covenant” comes to English from old French. The old French word was a form of “covenir.” And that simply meant something like “agree,” or more literally “come together.”
The word “atonement” is a contraction of “at-one-ment.” And it means just what it sounds like. That’s to “make one” or “unify.”
So “covenant” and “atonement” are both descriptions of the work to bring people together. They’re both about creating social unity. Typically, we understand atonement to be the work that Christ does to unite us with God. And we understand covenants to be the promises that we make to unite with Christ.
But now, are you considering the possibility that, when we make and keep covenants, we are participating in the Atonement? Given our reverence for Jesus, this might sound too audacious at first. But I think there’s something important here – something with real practical significance for us, because of our reverence for Jesus.
The Bible says that John the Baptist didn’t feel worthy to baptize Jesus. But Jesus insisted. And John proceeded. This suggests to me that Jesus understood something about covenants that John didn’t yet understand.
Covenants aren’t one-way promises. They require agreement and participation from everyone involved. In fact, that’s why they work. That’s how they bring people together.
Think back to the two kinds of unity that I mentioned. Covenants aren’t compulsion. That would make them meaningless. Their only power arises naturally from cooperation.
Jesus exemplified this with his baptism. It symbolized his willingness to make a covenant – and not just any covenant. It symbolized his willingness to make the ultimate covenant: to take on the name of Christ.
Then Jesus invited us to do the same, in the same way. He invited us to be baptized as a symbol of our willingness to make the ultimate covenant. He invited us to join him in taking on the name of Christ. And, because of our high esteem for him and his message, many of us have followed his example.
Of course, Jesus didn’t stop at baptism. He didn’t give up after making the covenant. With other Christians, we recognize that Jesus actually kept his covenant to take on the name of Christ. And we call his work the “Atonement of Christ.”
I think we could also call it the “Covenant of Christ.” And I think it’s the same covenant that many of us made when we were baptized. Jesus prayed, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
In primary, we sing “I’m a child of God” and “I’m trying to be like Jesus.” I love the simple reminders of our divine potential and calling. And I often reflect on how best to understand and practice them. You probably do too.
In October of last year, during the general conference of the Church, Elder Scott Whiting recalled a provocative statement from Elder Neal Maxwell. He said, “As we ponder having been commanded by Jesus to become like Him, we see that our present circumstance is one in which we are not necessarily wicked, but, rather, is one in which we are so half-hearted and so lacking in enthusiasm for His cause — which is our cause, too! We extol but seldom emulate Him.”
How true. We often extol but seldom emulate Jesus. Maybe we feel like it’s too audacious. Or maybe it scares us when we read his words, “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”
Sobering thoughts. The calling to practice atonement is nothing short of divine. And we’re so small compared to God. But the scriptures insist, “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass.”
Those of us who’ve followed Jesus into baptism have made a covenant – and not just any covenant. We’ve made the same covenant that Jesus made. We’ve taken on the name of Christ. In other words, we’ve promised to participate in the same work.
As the word “covenant” implies, that work is to bring people together, both ourselves and everyone else who desires to participate. As the word “atonement” implies, that work is to make us one.
And we know something about how to do that. We’ve read the scriptures that teach us how to create unity through cooperation, without compulsion. And we’ve learned about Jesus’ example.
My favorite verbal expression of the Covenant of Christ – of the Atonement of Christ – is recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants. There, we can read the welcoming words that Joseph Smith used for the School of the Prophets:
“I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love, to walk in all the commandments of God blameless, in thanksgiving, forever and ever.”
Imagine us, living up to this covenant a little better each day. Think about how this will change the ways we relate with each other. Consider how that will relieve the strain on our society. Imagine how that will feel.
I know something about people who make and keep the Covenant of Christ. That’s because I have the good fortune of living next to some of them. And I’m communicating with some of them now.
I’ve seen you make the world a better place. And sometimes I’ve seen you suffer for it. You’ve blessed me countless times by your kindness, patience, and grace.
I know you make mistakes, and sometimes hurt people. But you know I do too. And we both know we’ll need more grace tomorrow than we can give on our own. For that, thankfully, we can unite in something much bigger than ourselves.
That’s the good news of Christ.