The Refinanced Debt
One of the lies Satan has told about what Jesus accomplished by His atonement for our sin might be described as the “Second Mortgage,” or “Refinanced Debt” lie. This theory has been illustrated by the story of the man who went into debt for something that he very strongly wanted. When it came time to pay, he found that he was unable. So he asked the creditor to show him mercy. But the creditor replied that if he were to show the debtor mercy then there would be no justice.
There seemed to be no way to have both mercy and justice together. But then a third party stepped in: a mediator. The mediator asked the creditor to let him pay the debt in the debtor’s place. The creditor agreed. “The mediator turned then to the debtor. ‘If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?’ ‘Oh yes, yes,’ cried the debtor. ‘You saved me from prison and show mercy to me.’ ‘Then,’ said the benefactor, ‘you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison.’”(7)
Of course the mediator in the story illustrates the role of Jesus Christ. The creditor is God the Father. The debtor represents you and I, and everyone who has lived on this earth except Jesus. The debt is sin itself, and the threatened justice is it’s penalty.
Sorting it Through and Seeing it Straight
Indeed, this story does suggest a concept of how justice and mercy might be reconciled. That could only happen through the agency of a Mediator. However, the illustration does not present any real solution to the debtor’s problem—your problem, and my problem, as sinners. Read it again carefully and you will see that though the debt was paid, it was not canceled. In other words, according to this story, when He paid your debt of sin, rather than cancel it Jesus simply “took over your ‘contract.’” Now He stands as your “creditor,” and says, “You will pay the debt to me.”(8) The “mercy” shown to you, the debtor, only amounts to a kind of “refinancing.” You still have the same debt to pay!
Now think about it. If you can’t pay the Father, how can you possibly pay Jesus? And if you can pay Jesus, why do you need Him? Why not just pay the Father? Those who use this story to illustrate their concept of the effects of the atonement say that the “terms” Jesus sets by which we debtors can pay off the debt and live with our Heavenly Father “are to repent and keep his commandments.”(9) In fact, they will even tell you that “obeying all of the commandments” is part of what it means to “accept Christ’s atonement.”(10)
Unfortunately, however, “obeying all of the commandments” would not pay off your debt of sin. The figure below illustrates why. The vertical scale represents “righteousness.” The horizontal scale represents time. The jagged line could represent a person’s performance level of “righteousness,” in terms of his actions, attitudes and desires during the course of his life.
God's Word says, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.”(11) That means the 100% righteous level is the minimum level acceptable to God, for indeed, to Him, that is the only level that is righteous. Anything less is imperfect, and thus unrighteous. Righteousness is perfection. To fall below that level is to be unrighteous and incur the “debt” of sin. But reaching and maintaining the 100% level would be as much as could possibly be done. You simply can not be more or better than completely righteous. There is no way to earn any “surplus” righteousness with which to cover your debt of sin and pay your new “creditor,” Jesus. The story, then, turns out to be pretty bad news, after all. It does not teach the Gospel, the Good News.
A Poor Alternative
At this point, people who use the above story to illustrate their concept of the effects of the atonement would probably have to admit that there is no way to pay Jesus. And that really destroys the whole point of the story. But some ideas die hard. While admitting that you can’t actually pay for your sins, some still insist that reaching and maintaining, or enduring to the end, at that 100% level perfection is the requirement you must meet to be completely, permanently forgiven and live in the presence of your Heavenly Father.(12) Sound like more bad news? It is. Because the question must necessarily arise, “How can one ever even attain, let alone maintain, such perfect righteousness?”
Even those who insist that such perfection is the requirement for complete forgiveness will usually concede that there is no way a person could reach such a condition on his own, under his own power. But the Holy Ghost, they say, will give one the power to overcome the temptations and sin, keep the commandments, and become worthy.
This would be fine, except for one thing. The same people also say, “...you can enjoy the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost as long as you are worthy of it... Those who receive the gift of the Holy Ghost can enjoy his companionship throughout their lives, if they remain worthy.”(13) And, “When we obey the commandments, we...become worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost.”(14)
According to these statements, we need to be worthy before we can be forgiven of our sins, or receive the Holy Ghost. We become worthy of both, only by keeping the commandments. But we can’t keep the commandments on our own without the Holy Ghost. So—we need the Holy Ghost to be able to be worthy, but we must be worthy before we can have the Holy Ghost! It’s a classic catch-22!
It’s about time we admit this whole system just doesn’t have the answer. So what is the answer?
(7) Packer, Boyd K., at General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April, 1977. Cited in Gospel Principles, (Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1978) p. 71 (emphasis added).
(8) Packer, Ibid., (emphasis added).
(9) No author named, Gospel Principles, (Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1978) p. 71.
(10) Ibid., p. 68 (emphasis added). You cannot receive eternal life without “accepting Christ’s atonement.”
(11) Matthew 5:48; James 2:10.
(12) e.g. “In other words, each person must endure in faithfullness, keeping all the Lord’s commandments until the end of his life on earth.” (Gospel Principles, p. 292; emphasis added). “...the repentance which merits forgiveness. It is that the former transgressor must have reached a ‘point of no return’ to sin...” “...incomplete repentance never brought complete forgiveness.” “Immortality has been accomplished by the Savior’s sacrifice. Eternal life hangs in the balance awaiting the works of men. This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins.... Perfection therefore is an achievable goal....Only as we overcome shall we become perfect and move toward godhood. As I indicated previously, the time to do this is now, in mortality.” (Kimball, op. cit., pp. 354-355, 212, 208-210; emphasis added).
(13) No author named, Uniform System for Teaching the Gospel, (Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1986) Discussion 2, p. 2-18. (emphasis added).
(14) Ibid., p. 2-20.