I was beyond impressed by Blake Ostler in his book "The Problems of Theism and the Love of God." It's the second volume in his Exploring Mormon Thought series, called "the most important works on Mormon theology ever written."
In fact, I was so impressed that, in preparation for my mission, I took it upon myself to summarize a few key chapters (5-9) in this book.
I condensed about 200 pages down to 1000 words, so bear with me if this all seems a bit curt. In fact, if this line of thought seems curt but intriguing, I'd urge you to buy the book and read for yourself. It's probably the best money I've spent in some time.
By revisiting such central issues as faith, works, grace, salvation, theosis (becoming like God), covenants, sin, and moral law, with such insight and precision, Ostler has essentially written an "Advanced Gospel Essentials." It's a combination of meat and milk which I partook of with joy.
So without further ado:
Ostler's main point: What God offers us is an I-Thou relationship, in which each truly loves each other as subject, not object.
I'll start with the question that is the most pressing to me personally: why can’t we return to God, grow, etc, without the atonement?
A fundamental of LDS thought is that God writes his Law and puts it in our hearts (Romans 10:8, “The Light of Christ,” etc). Sin is falseness to this Law in our hearts; in turn, our betrayal of the law of love (John 13:34) is our choice to be alienated from other, enclosed in ourselves. Moreover, we (inevitably) engage in self-deception – including, if we hard-heartedly do good deeds, self-justification by works. “For if a man thinketh himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.” (Galatians 6:3). Such deception takes away the light and truth. (1 John 1:10).
The solution is repentance. God has created a covenant relationship with us, in which anyone can get into the covenant. God is a “first mover” in the relationship: “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) A first mover is necessary to get to the good equilibrium, where each person loves the other. (Think prisoner's dilemma, if you know anything about game theory.) God is standing with his arms open, all we have to do to accept is turn around and walk into his arms (2 Nephi 1:15; Alma 5:33)
Which in human terms, means that: we walk into His arms by repenting, by producing “works of love,” giving good gifts with good intentions, not a hard heart (Moroni 7:6-10). Without producing such works, by calling ourselves followers of Christ we are still deceiving ourselves. (James 1:22-26). Moreover, doctrines like original sin are what humans have produced to escape accountability for their own sins, telling themselves ‘I’m rotten to the core, but not because of anything I did.’
A slightly different perspective: it takes such “works of love” to remain in the covenant, because only being honorable can a client (me) give honor to his patron (God). (The client-patron relationship was typical in the ancient Mediterranean; think student-professor, mentee-mentor.). In the covenant, we are offered his grace (Hebrews); through Christ’s atonement, we can have forgiveness of our sins and grow to be partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4-10). It makes us free (2 Nephi 2:26-27).
Wait, how does it make us free?
Scripture gives many examples of people who harden our hearts (see esp. Alma 10:5-7).
By trying to create and maintain an ego, a projected self-image, we as individuals do evil, failing to love others, even sometimes murdering, raping, and killing. In a social science experiment, people gave electric shocks to other people under the aegis of ‘testing.’ They then decided that those people deserved it because ‘a nice guy like me wouldn’t do stuff to someone who didn’t deserve it.’ This is how we often act.
In a fallen world, we have imbibed false traditions (Moses 6:55) Choices have become habits, habits have become our character, and have created barriers of alienation. Sometimes these patterns are passed down through the generations. Moreover, because of self-deception, we refuse to recognize them as sins.
This concords with a reality that we recognize – in which each of us that has lived any significant amount of time (6 to 8 years) has made choices that create separation and pain in relationships. In which each of us has made mistakes and committed willful sins that violate our own standards. (Interestingly, this ties into CS Lewis’s idea in Mere Christianity: the two fundamental things that we as humans know is that all societies have expected moral codes and that we break them).
The solution to this is the Atonement. Through the Atonement, we get the light of Christ which is our guide. We (= everyone in the world, not just Christians) could choose but would not know good from evil without the Atonement. We would not have consciences. But with the atonement, we do.
The atonement also lets God succcor us according to the flesh. (Alma 7:12). It enables the I-Thou relationship, in which two people recognize each other as people, not objects, worthy as ends, not just means.
“Because God himself in Christ descended below all things, we cannot complain that he does not know, cannot comprehend, cannot be with us in our suffering and alienation from God.” (D&C 122:7-8, Mark 15:34)
The pain in Gethsemane, in Christ’s atonement in general, comes from this love, from loving us and not having us love him back in return. It comes when Christ takes upon him the pain, the psychosomatic guilt, that we feel from our sins (D&C 19:16).
Finally, the Atonement lets us end our self-deception. God’s grace tells us that we don’t need to create a false ego, including by doing evil, to be justified. Instead, we are justified initially by His grace – that is, he loves us, not our public fronts.
We must be willing to put aside the false traditions we have imbibed, become again “as a child, submissive, meek, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19) This is offering a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” (Psalms 51:17, 3 Nephi 9:20). More graphically, it is being circumcised of heart (Romans 2:28-29) – cutting our most private part open to God.
When we open ourselves to God we begin to “receive his image in our countenances.” We “experience a mighty change in our hearts.” (Alma 5:14, 19). We begin to grow to become like God – to accept the gift he offers us.
Of course. we can reject Christ’s love and persist in sin.
“But he that persists in his own carnal nature, and goes in the way of sin and rebellion against God, remains in his fallen state and the devil has all power over him. Therefore, he is as though there were no redemption made, being an enemy to God.”(Mosiah 16:4-5)
This, of course, involves the greatest self-deception of all, that we would be happier without God’s love.