It is impossible to put into words the full meaning of the atonement of Christ. Entire volumes have been written on this subject. But for our purposes here, let me try to explain in brief, simple terms what the atonement of Jesus Christ means to me—and what it could mean to you.
I remember reading about a fire fighter in the eastern United States who ran into a burning house to rescue several children from an arson-induced fire. While his colleagues battled the blaze to keep it from spreading to other structures in the neighborhood, this man dashed into the building again and again, each time emerging with a child in his arms. After rescuing the fifth child, he started back into the inferno once more. Neighbors shouted that there were no more children in the family. But he insisted that he had seen a baby in a cradle, and he dove into the intensifying heat.
Moments after he disappeared into the fire and smoke, a horrifying explosion shook the building and the entire structure collapsed. It was several hours before fire fighters were able to locate their colleague's body. They found him in the nursery near the crib, huddled protectively over a life-sized—and practically unscratched—doll.
I'm overwhelmed by that story. I'm touched by the fire fighter's courageous and selfless devotion to duty, and I'm thankful that there are men and women in the world who are willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of others.
As I think about such heroism, however, I'm reminded that the most heroic act of all time ever was performed in behalf of all mankind by the Son of God. In a very real sense, all of humanity—past, present, and future—was trapped behind a wall of flame that was fueled and fanned by our own faithlessness. Sin separated mortals from God (see Romans 6:23), and would do so forever unless a way was found to put out the fires of sin and rescue us from ourselves. The way would not be easy, for it required the vicarious sacrifice of One who was sinless and who was willing to pay the price of sin for all of humanity, now and forever.
Thankfully, that most significant role was heroically played by Jesus Christ on two different stages in ancient Jerusalem. The first act was performed quietly, on bended knee in the Garden of Gethsemane. There in the quiet isolation of gnarled olive trees and sturdy boulders, and in some incredible way that none of us can fully comprehend, the Savior took upon Himself the sins of the world. Even though His life was pure and free of sin, He paid the ultimate penalty for sin—yours, mine, and the sins of everyone who ever lived. His mental and emotional anguish were so great that it caused Him to bleed from every pore (see Luke 22:44). And yet He did it, willingly, so that we might all have the cleansing opportunity of repentance through faith in Jesus Christ, without which none of us would be worthy of entrance into God's kingdom.
The second act was performed just hours later in the torture chambers of Jerusalem and on the cross at Calvary, where He endured the agony of inquisition, cruel beatings, and death by crucifixion. The Savior didn't have to go through that. As the Son of God, He had the power to alter the situation in any number of ways. Yet He allowed Himself to be battered and abused, humiliated and executed, so that we could receive the priceless gift of immortality. The atonement of Jesus Christ was an awful yet indispensable part of Heavenly Father's plan for His Son's earthly mission. Because Jesus died and then conquered death through His resurrection, all of us will have the privilege of immortality. This gift is given freely through the loving grace of Jesus Christ to all people of all ages, regardless of their good or evil acts. And to those who choose to love the Lord and who show their love and faith in Him by keeping His commandments, the Atonement offers the additional promise of exaltation, or the privilege of living in the presence of God forever.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often sing a hymn, "I Stand All Amazed," that expresses what I feel when I consider the Savior's benevolent atoning sacrifice:
I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.
Oh, it is wonderful
that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful,
Wonderful to me!