There may be no language to describe the Atonement; recurring passages in the Book of Mormon and other works show the incapacity of mortals to express the joy and wonder inherent in God’s glory. When we try to approach the divine through language, one of the more common scriptural tropes for Christ’s expiation and our relationship with God is that of indebtedness. References to our indebted nature occur in all of the standard works.(1)
How far can the language of indebtedness take us in coming closer to God through Christ?
First, it’s clear that notions of being in debt to God is not some passing metaphor like parables of bicycles or some such; Christ brings it up, Paul brings it up, Benjamin brings it up and Joseph Smith does as well. The concept is so central as to be more than a simple turn of phrase; I wonder whether it is in fact an accurate metaphysical description. I like King Benjamin’s description, which is probably the most developed in our standard works:
And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him. And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?
The truth of this is obvious to the believer: God created us, gives us all we have, and blesses us both in near- and long-term for obedience to His commandments. Like residents of a company town, we owe God just for being here, and we owe Him more and more each day. You can never ‘break even’ with God. This sounds potentially negative, but in the eyes of the believer this is part of the essential bond between us and our Heavenly Father: a sense of gratitude, which stems from a knowledge of God’s greatness and our comparative unworthiness. This is the paradigm through which I approach much of my personal worship. I owe God a lot. He has been immensely patient and kind to me, and it is clear that the life I live and the blessings I enjoy, both temporal and spiritual, are not earned but are true gifts. When I approach Him in prayer and think about the people and experiences I enjoy, I can only acknowledge that I will never be able to repay, but that I will give what I can.
The debt model of atonement doesn’t take long to break down. Why does a debt accrue? Who is being paid, and how much? What is the currency? Is God essentially getting us — or His son — to repay his debts? It’s an odd system, to be sure, even if the raw notion of indebtedness speaks to our hearts. Perhaps the most important element of this atonement model is the concept of gratitude that it potentially instills within us. That said, I don’t know that it is sufficient to get us saved. What other models of worship are there? Are there indicators in the scriptures (or elsewhere) that being a penitent debtor is something other than permanent?
While I am unclear on how the progression occurs, I am convinced that at some point God looks beyond this indebtedness model and considers us on a different interpersonal level. Descriptors such as “heirs,” “joint-heirs,” “children,” and “friends” lead me to believe that either at some point in our spiritual progression our relationship to Heavenly Father becomes more familial, or perhaps more assured, possibly following abrahamic-style testing. Certainly this is the progression seen in the revelations given to Joseph Smith, whose relationship to God evolves over time from unruly servant to friend.
What’s the point of all this? I am not sure. Partially this is a banal commentary on the limits of any literature, including scripture, in its capacity to describe the Atonement. I am also still trying to make sense of the Atonement in my own mind, and in doing so feel constrained by language and by the predominant metaphors of scripture. There’s a calm and assurance that is better than these analogies. What is it?
(1) I was going to add lots of footnotes throughout here, but then realized they were all pretty obvious. If anyone needs cross-references or evidence for the things I am saying, they are easily found.