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BOB - If the atonement is required for repentance why is it that people are called to repentance prior to the actual atonement?
JOEL - Because the atonement is infinite in its nature, it can be applied retroactively. In the D&C we learn:
"That as many as would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end, should be saved—
Not only those who believed after he came in the meridian of time, in the flesh, but all those from the beginning, even as many as were before he came, who believed in the words of the holy prophets, who spake as they were inspired by the gift of the Holy Ghost, who truly testified of him in all things, should have eternal life, (D&C 20: 25-26)
Jesus Christ was the "the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8), refering to the retrospective nature of the atonement(Mosiah 4:7; see also 1 Ne. 10:18; Mosiah 15:19; Alma 12:30; Ether 3:14).
That Christ was foreordained to bring about the atonement is also evident from Peter's statement that we are redeemed "with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world" (1 Pet. 1:19-20).
Enos from the Book of Mormon who lived centuries before Christ, heard a voice declare, "Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed." (Enos 1:5-6).
Before Christ appeared to the Nephites we read in Mosiah 3:13:
"And the Lord God hath sent his holy prophets among all the children of men, to declare these things to every kindred, nation, and tongue, that thereby whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins, and rejoice with exceedingly great joy, even as though he had already come among them." (Mosiah 3:13; see also Jarom 1:11).
This scripture shows the incredible and infinite power of the atonement to reach forward and backward through time, saving those who had already lived and giving some the faith to believe in Christ "as though he had already come."
Alma said to his son Corianton 74 years before the birth of Christ:
"Behold, I say unto you, that it is he(Christ) that surely shall come to take away the sins of the world; yea, he cometh to declare glad tidings of salvation unto his people.
Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand. Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?
Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children?"(Alma 39)
The Lord made this unconditional declaration concerning the brother of Jared, who predated the Savior's Atonement by about twenty-two hundred years: "Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall" (Ether 3:13).
The atonement even applies to those in the pre-mortal life. Revelation 12 provides significant elements regarding the war in heaven:
"And there was war in heaven:
Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not;
And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony" (Rev. 12:7–9, 11).
This passage tells us that the righteous were eventually victorious because "they overcame [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony" (Rev. 12:11).
We use the principle of retroactive credit in our everyday lives. On a daily basis we buy merchandise with our credit cards and then pay for it after the fruits have been enjoyed. As we prove dependable and timely in making our payments the amount of our credit increases. In a similar way those who lived and died before Christ were given retroactive credit for their repentence, enjoying the fruits of the atonement before it actually happened.
God who is all-powerful and fair and just in all things would of course find a way to apply the atonement to all who have lived before or after Christ.