February 21st, 2010

On the Necessity of Repentance

I gave the following talk in another ward today:

photo credit: ashley.adcox

We all must repent

The scriptures and church history provide us with many inspiring stories of individuals who have repented of previous sins and become mighty men and women of God. Alma the Younger, the rebellious son of the high priest who spent his time trying to destroy the faith and testimony of his countrymen, was confronted by an angel of the Lord and struck dumb for three days. He awoke a new man, ready and eager to prove to his earthly and heavenly fathers that his conversion was sincere and previous wrongs would now be made right.

A Pharisee named Saul was a prominent persecutor of the early Christians who participated in the murder of Stephen, one of the seven chosen by the first set of apostles. While on the road to Damascus to continue his oppression of the followers of Christ, he had a vision of Jesus Christ himself and was left blind for three days as a result. Saul turned his life around, became known by the Latin version of his name, Paul, and became a key instrument of God in building up his kingdom.

W. W. Phelps rose to prominence in the early Church, serving in leadership positions and at one time as Joseph Smith’s personal scribe. After he made some choices which led to his excommunication, he testified against Joseph, which contributed to the prophet’s imprisonment in Missouri for several months. Reconciliation was later made, and Phelps returned to good standing, received his temple endowment, and served as a missionary.

These and other examples are often at the forefront of our minds when the subject of repentance comes up, and we’re asked to think of examples to consider. This makes sense, since the stories are emotionally compelling and worthy of being turned into a dramatic film or novel. You and I, however, will likely never experience such highs and lows in life. We will no doubt have our ups and downs, and sometimes even some serious sins to repent of, but for the majority of our lives repentance is not a melodramatic story worth passing onto our posterity, but rather a personal effort to make small changes. As Elder Andersen taught, "For most, repenting is quiet and quite private, daily seeking the Lord’s help to make needed changes."

Sins, both big and small

The majority of us understand the concept of repentance, but perhaps don’t ponder the issue as often as we should, since few (if any) of us are committing any sins that would make us unworthy of temple attendance or necessitate a meeting with the Bishop. Even if they are smaller in nature, though, each of us carries a load of sins that require we undergo the same process as Alma, Saul, and Brother Phelps. President Ezra Taft Benson commented on this as follows:

For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord, little realizing they are building a god like life. They live quiet lives of goodness, service, and commitment. They are like the Lamanites, who the Lord said, "Were baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not."

You and I must repent of our sins, just as the notable figures throughout history have had to repent of theirs. Father Lehi taught of the universal nature of sin in this way:

And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever.

It’s interesting to note here that there are two verb tenses. When referring to the temporal law, which deals with the separation of our bodies and spirits, Lehi says that we were cut off. This is past tense, as it’s an already-imposed, fixed action that we all suffer as a result of our morality. But when referring to the spiritual law, which deals with our worthiness to be in God’s presence, Lehi says that men perish. This is the present tense of the verb, indicating that it’s a current or ongoing event. We all die, and Christ’s resurrection affords us the free gift of likewise overcoming temporal death. We all sin as well, and as this happens on an ongoing basis, Lehi teaches us that we are perishing day after day according to the spiritual law.

Of course, the reason you and I are here at church today is to renew our commitment to obey that spiritual law by partaking of the sacrament and covenanting to emulate Christ by doing the things that He would do. Elder Neal A. Maxwell wisely noted that "the Church is ‘for the perfecting of the saints’ (Eph. 4:12); it is not a well-provisioned rest home for the already perfected." Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin explained the same concept in this way:

Some are lost because they have strayed. Except for the Lord, we have all made mistakes. The question is not whether we will trip and fall but, rather, how will we respond? Some, after making mistakes, stray from the fold. This is unfortunate. Do you not know that the Church is a place for imperfect people to gather together—even with all their mortal frailties—and become better? Every Sunday in every meetinghouse throughout the world, we find mortal, imperfect men, women, and children who meet together in brotherhood and charity, striving to become better people, to learn of the Spirit, and to lend encouragement and support to others. I am not aware of any sign on the door of our meetinghouses that reads ‘Restricted Entrance—Perfect People Only.’

Whether our sins are large or small, if we do not repent of them they will ultimately prevent us from returning to God’s presence. Put differently, the spiritual law will require our separation from God. Repentance is our responsibility and ours alone; just as we believe that men will be punished for their own sins, so too do we believe that men must repent of their own sins. President Boyd K. Packer explained:

Repentance is the key with which we can unlock the prison from inside. We hold that key within our hands, and agency is ours to use it.

True repentance cannot be coerced, because as President Benson once taught, it "involves a change of heart and not just a change of behavior." Our actions can be altered through another person’s force—for example, a mother can lock her child in his room to prevent him from hitting his sibling—but our bad behavior is the prison President Packer spoke of in which we lock ourselves, and only we can allow the change of heart that will modify our behavior.

Two types

In his 1828 dictionary, Noah Webster defined two separate aspects of repentance, the first of which says:

In theology, the pain, regret or affliction which a person feels on account of his past conduct, because it exposes him to punishment. This sorrow proceeding merely from the fear of punishment, is called legal repentance, as being excited by the terrors of legal penalties, and it may exist without an amendment of life.

This aspect of repentance would be recognized by Latter-day Saints as incomplete since it originates from a fear of punishment, rather than a desire to do good. We might compare it to an individual committing sins of commission—things like adultery, theft, pornography, cheating, or violence. If the person fears being punished for these actions, then he might feel it important to stop committing them, thereby escaping any punishment. Of course, this "repentance" is superficial at best, since the person is merely trying to escape a penalty. Like a child caught stealing a cookie, the resulting "I’m sorry" is likely not too sincere and only was produced when punishment became likely.

One example from scripture comes from Laman and Lemuel, who were repeatedly persecuting their younger brother, even physically assaulting him and attempting to end his life on certain occasions. At one point an angel was sent to intervene, and at other times Nephi’s displays of divine power were sufficient to keep them in check. Each time they expressed remorse (or at least stopped their attacks), but soon afterward continued their same campaign of rebellion and wickedness. Clearly, their brief changes in behavior lacked any change of heart—Nephi told them they were "past feeling"—and so their instances of "legal repentance" failed to change anything.

Webster’s next definition harmonizes better with our gospel understanding, and entails the aspect of repentance that Laman and Lemuel would have had to experience in order to be forgiven and lead new lives. This definition says repentance is:

Real penitence; sorrow or deep contrition for sin, as an offense and dishonor to God, a violation of his holy law, and the basest ingratitude towards a Being of infinite benevolence. This is called evangelical repentance, and is accompanied and followed by amendment of life.

Contrasted with the sins of commission that might lead us to repent out of fear or obligation, it might be argued that this type of repentance deals more with the smaller sins each of us frequently commit—sins of omission. It requires the change in behavior that President Benson spoke of, and its motivation is a strong desire to please God and obey His will. Proper repentance, then, means not only not doing bad things, but also doing good things. Elder Bednar explained it this way:

Can I give you an illustration of how repentance might change? It is one thing to turn away from sin in the process of repentance, but it is quite another to turn to God. It is one thing to seek for forgiveness of our sins; it is another thing to seek for our hearts to be purified. It is one thing to receive a remission of our sins; but it is an even greater thing, a more spiritually demanding thing, to always retain in remembrance the greatness of God. It is one thing to have our sins removed; it is a different thing to have the desire to sin removed. The process of coming unto Christ is not a process that is sequential with little, separate steps. In a Gospel Doctrine class we typically diagram spiritual progress with boxes and arrows, i.e., you do this first and then you do this. And we get the notion that we move through this series of sequential steps. In a few minutes I am going to show an illustration of a helix. A helix is like a coil; but as it spirals upwards, it expands and becomes broader. For me, the answer to the so what question is that these preparatory conditions and ongoing requirements are not sequential; they are continuous. We exercise a particle of faith, and we come unto Christ. We receive ordinances, and we continue in the process of coming unto Christ. And we believe in prophesying and in the gift of tongues, and it becomes broader and more expansive. The same thing is true with repentance as we continue to cycle upward in a very significant way. (emphasis added)

As each of us is constantly committing sin and doing things that are an offense and dishonor to God, it then becomes necessary that we involve ourselves in a continuous cycle of repentance, as Elder Bednar suggests. This places us in a position of subservience to God, recognizing that we are "unworthy creatures" who need to be cleansed through the rigorous process of repentance.

A higher standard

This "evangelical repentance" is no easy task, as it requires that we constantly be ridding ourselves of any ungodly action, no matter how small, and replacing it with something better. It is not enough to simply be a temple recommend holder or be a generally good person. President Hinckley once taught:

It is not enough to be good. You must be good for something. You must contribute good to the world. The world must be a better place for your presence. And the good that is in you must be spread to others. In this world so filled with problems, so constantly threatened by dark and evil challenges, you can and must rise above mediocrity, above indifference. You can become involved and speak with a strong voice for that which is right.

Elder Bednar spoke of many efforts that qualify as "good for something": turning to God, seeking for our hearts to be purified, retaining in remembrance the greatness of God, and having the desire to sin removed from us. If embraced, these goals will lead us to see our three hours on Sunday not as merely "going to Church", but coming to worship God with our fellow Saints. Instead of the checklist of church chores, we will see our callings and responsibilities as opportunities to serve others and share the light of Christ with those around us.

A story my wife recently shared with me demonstrates this at a more personal level. During her college years, she was playing a game of sports outdoors with some friends on a relaxing Saturday morning. Suddenly, one of the players fell over dead in an instant, without any warning or visible cause. This young man, who just minutes earlier had been actively engaged in the game and living one more day of a happy life, was now separated from his body, his mortal probation having come to an abrupt end. In the days that followed, my wife was distraught over this experience, shaken by the fragility of human life and the stark reality of death.

It was a motivating experience for her, as she quickly began to question her own life, wondering if she was prepared should her life also end abruptly. As far as the "legal repentance" goes, she wasn’t doing much that would entail punishment, although there were things that she knew she should not have been doing or participating in. After all, she was a returned missionary, full tithe payer, and a temple-going member of the Church in good standing. But as far as the "evangelical repentance" goes, she felt compelled to improve many areas of her life. She realized that if she were put into a situation where within minutes her earthly life would be over and she would have to account for her action (or inaction), she would not be able to say that she had done everything she could have to make her life more in line with what God wanted. Even basic questions would have been a challenge for her to answer satisfactorily, such as "why weren’t you a better visiting teacher?", "why didn’t you serve your brothers and sisters more often?", "why didn’t you work on your family history?", or "why didn’t you try harder to have the Spirit with you on a daily basis?".

She knew that she had no excuse for not doing these things; though she was a member of the Church in good standing, she had fallen short of God’s high standard for one who wishes to become "perfect in Christ". This confrontation with death helped her see the need to turn to God, seek for her heart to be purified, retain in remembrance the greatness of God, and have the desire to sin removed. For her, repentance became—and still is—a continuous cycle of striving to improve each day to become like God.

Turning ourselves over to God

President Kimball once explained that repentance involves "an all out surrender to the program of the Lord." The program of the Lord is, of course, the Atonement—the thing which makes repentance even have a purpose to begin with. It would be pointless to talk about repentance without mentioning the Atonement, much like consulting with somebody about your terminal illness who is neither a doctor nor able to prescribe you any medicine. Repentance is possible only because of the Atonement. President James E. Faust taught that "All of us have sinned and need to repent to fully pay our part of the debt. When we sincerely repent, the Savior’s magnificent Atonement pays the rest of that debt."

The Atonement, of course, is the divine process by which Jesus Christ took upon himself the sins of every one of Heavenly Father’s children, enabling us to overcome spiritual death by repenting of our sins and relying upon "the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah" to restore us to a state of purity and worthiness. This relationship between repentance and the Atonement was made perfectly clear by the Savior himself, when he said:

Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.

For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—

Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.

It is because of God’s great gift of the Atonement that we are able to repent and be cleansed, having our scarlet sins be made white as snow. Knowing that a perfect Savior voluntarily offered himself as a sacrifice on our behalf inspires us to cast away our sins, for each additional offense committed is one more burden placed upon the Lord. Elder Maxwell said:

The more we know of Jesus’ Atonement, the more we will humbly and gladly glorify Him, His Atonement, and His character. We will never tire of paying tribute to His goodness and loving-kindness. How long will we so speak of our gratitude for His Atonement? The scriptures advise "forever and ever"!

If you’ll recall, Noah Websters definition of "evangelical repentance", or, rather, the true repentance we all must daily work at, entails "sorry or deep contrition for sin, as an offense and dishonor to God, a violation of his holy law, and the basest ingratitude towards a Being of infinite benevolence." This almost poetic explanation of the principle of repentance is one we would all do well to ponder.

When we consider repentance to be simply turning to God and doing the things that He would have us do, and when we consider how much He has done for us, we should feel humbled and motivated to improve our lives as an expression of gratitude for God’s gifts and goodness toward us.

In a revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith in 1828, the Lord said that "Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church." May we all as Latter-day Saints recognize our imperfection and strive to continually repent of our sins—both those of commission and omission. I testify that repentance is not a punishment, but a gift from God as a result of Christ’s Atonement—an opportunity for us to more closely align our lives with God’s will.

5 Responses to “On the Necessity of Repentance”

  1. M
    February 21, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    The 2 most important things we can learn how to do in this life (1) Repent and (2) Forgive.

  2. Tim Harper
    February 21, 2010 at 10:51 pm #

    1) Love God
    2) Love your neighbor like yourself

  3. Justin
    February 23, 2010 at 7:27 am #

    1) Love God
    -By repenting
    2) Love your neighbor like yourself
    -By forgiving

  4. Clumpy
    February 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm #

    1) Unrelated thing
    2) Illusion of participating
    3) Vaguely on-topic and wholesome so nobody calls me out on it

  5. Brad Carmack
    April 18, 2010 at 1:57 am #

    Thoughtful post. Thanks so much for the applicable message!

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