Is Jesus Your Substitute or Your Exemplar?

As a Mormon I thought I knew what Christ did for us in His Atonement. I knew He was my Savior and Redeemer. What I didn’t know is that His Role as the Exemplar is unique to Mormonism. LDS Prophets claim that Christ paid for our sins and became our Creditor through the Atonement. He gained immortality for us (bodily resurrection) but we have to qualify for eternal life through our obedience. Heavenly Father sent us to earth to be tested and we needed someone to show us how to be perfect through obedience.

Christ came not only into the world to make an atonement for the sins of mankind but to set an example before the world of the standard of perfection of God’s law and of obedience to the Father. In his Sermon on the Mount the Master has given us somewhat of a revelation of his own character, which was perfect… and in so doing has given us a blueprint for our own lives.”

I was amazed when I learned that Christ is our Substitute–not our Exemplar! For thirty six years I never once heard the word “Substitute” in connection to Christ or His Atonement. When I first heard it—I rejoiced because of what it meant. I knew how sinful I was and how much I needed a Substitute. I knew that if my eternal life depended upon how well I followed Christ’s example, I was doomed. I learned that I was not the only person who was unworthy. I discovered that the very reason Christ came to this earth was because every person is unworthy and sinful (Romans 3:10-12). None of us has the ability to meet Heavenly Father’s demands. By nature we are children of wrath! (Ephesians 2:3) No one is righteous; in fact we’re not even good (Matthew 19:17). The Prophet Isaiah testified that even our righteous works are like filthy rags in God’s sight (Isaiah 64:6). Since our eternal destination hangs in the balance of meeting God’s demands, we need a Substitute–not an Exemplar.

The idea of a substitute is not foreign to God’s people. Heavenly Father had actually instituted Christ’s role of substitution through animal sacrifices. He declared that anyone who did not obey His commands must pay for their sin through eternal death. But since every person is sinful no one could be saved without an alternative plan. We see that plan demonstrated in the Old Testament sacrifices. A man’s sin could be atoned for by the shedding of the lifeblood of a substitute sacrifice. When an Israelite sinned, he brought a perfect animal to the Temple and the Priest sacrificed it as an atonement for his sin. If the sacrifice wasn’t perfect it was declared unfit to atone for another’s sin. All these animal substitutes merely pointed ahead in similitude to the perfect Substitute sacrifice—Jesus Christ! And, His perfect sacrifice was the final sacrifice—once, for all (Hebrews 10:10).

Before Christ could sacrifice Himself and become our Substitute, He first had to do what we could not do–live a perfectly obedient life. He successfully obeyed all the commands that God required of us, like visiting the sick, loving our enemies and forgiving those who despitefully used him. He did all of these things for us, in our place, as our substitute! (Romans 5:19) He did this because we couldn’t meet God’s demands to be obedient for ourselves! In a similar way that a substitute teacher takes over and accomplishes the work the teacher was supposed to do, Jesus lived His entire life doing the works we were supposed to do. When you read in scripture that Jesus prayed for His enemies, rest assured that this obedient act has been credited to your account. Jesus took your sins as if they were His own; and in exchange, gave you His perfect works, as if you yourself had accomplished them (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be our Substitute and not our Exemplar (53:4-12). He testified that Jesus would suffer the penalty for our iniquity. We all have gone astray, just like sheep! Even though we deserved punishment, God laid all our iniquity on Jesus. As our substitute He was wounded, bruised and stricken. Our eternal consequence for sin was to be cursed to eternal life with Satan because we failed to continue doing everything God commanded. As our substitute, Jesus became a curse for us! (Galatians 3:10-13). We were all unclean and not able to enter God’s presence; (Ephesians 5:5) but Jesus washed our sins away with His own blood and became sin for us.

In Hebrews we read that Christ offered His body as a perfect sacrifice and in exchange, we have been perfected forever! (10:10-14) “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” We who were sinful and imperfect, are found perfect in God’s sight. This is because Christ was punished for our sins, and covered us with His righteousness: Isaiah 61: 10 “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness,” Heavenly Father loves you so much He sent His Son on a Mission to be your Substitute! Believe it and then live it through a life of joy and thanksgiving by committing your life to him as a gift of love.

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Has Mormonism changed the meaning of the word “gift”?

This Christmas I would imagine you received at least one gift. But, did you receive any “conditional” gifts? Did anyone tell you that you had to do something for them before you could open their gift? How many gifts are under your tree, waiting to be opened until you meet the requirements of the giver?

It might sound absurd to talk like this or think of “gifts” that we gave or received in this manner. When we know the person that gives us a gift, we realize that we don’t have to “do” something before we open their gift. We trust that the giver of the gift loves us and has given us their gift unconditionally and freely. In fact, if you look up the word “gift” in a dictionary you will find it defined as “Something that is bestowed voluntarily and without compensation.”

But, when speaking of spiritual matters in Mormonism, the word “gift” has been redefined! There is really only one unconditionalgift” in Mormonism and that is the gift of immortality (bodily resurrection). All other “gifts” are “conditional”. One simple example can be found in True to the Faith, page 52. In referencing Eternal life, it states “Like immortality, this gift is made possible through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. However, it requires our “obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” The “condition” attached to this “gift” from Heavenly Father is obedience. Do a search at lds.org in the gospel library and type in the words “conditional AND gift”. You will discover that even God’s love, mercy and grace are all “gifts” conditioned upon your worthiness.

But the truth is that your Savior has many unconditional gifts waiting for you! One is the gift of eternal life! Not only does He offer it to you unconditionally but it is also given voluntarily. This gift was made personally, just for you, and it wasn’t an easy gift to make. Jesus lovingly spent thirty three years working on this gift. Day after day, despite many temptations by Satan, Jesus perfectly obeyed God’s laws for you. His suffering on the night of His death was tremendous. It must have been excruciating to take upon Himself the sins of the entire world and be cursed by His Heavenly Father. His shed blood covered over every sin you will ever commit. He willingly lived and died to give you the gift of eternal life.

Now, imagine that Jesus comes to you and personally offers His gift to you—freely and unconditionally. But, instead of graciously and excitedly thanking Him for the gift He worked so hard to make for you, you tell Him you can improve on His gift by adding your own works to it. Or, maybe you tell Him you can’t accept His gift because you believe you must first qualify for it. Imagine His disappointment as you reject this loving gift He made just for you.

Please don’t do this to my Jesus! Don’t reject the gift of eternal life Jesus worked so hard to give you! Through His perfect works He has qualified you to live eternally with Heavenly Father. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) Believe that Jesus gained this gift for you and you will receive it! Then, spend the rest of your life freely serving God. “Freely” because doing so is your voluntary and unconditional gift of love to Him!