In the eighteenth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, we read, "For behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto Him." (D&C 18:11)
We believe that Jesus suffered and died to pay the debt of our sins, thereby saving us from death and hell by His forgiving mercy and grace. Through the atonement of Christ we can be made clean, pure and spotless before God since His sacrifice has the power to wipe away our sins as though we had never committed them. To many, this means that we are no longer required to pay any penalty, or endure any suffering for the things we do wrong. To many, the atonement means that all we need do is simply repent and we can avoid suffering the consequences of our sinful deeds.
That is true - to a point. The point is that repentance isn't the painless remedy that many try to make it out to be.
To fully appreciate what repentance is, what it represents, and why it's so necessary, we must first understand what Christ's atonement has really accomplished for us.
Before the atonement, we were subject to something called the "Law". This is not the Law of Moses, but rather is a set of rules and regulations that God neither created nor can ignore. They are eternal, and God Himself must abide by them if He is to remain as God. This Law is just and it is perfect, and as such, it's no respecter of persons; it carries out it's judgments swiftly, accurately, and completely, regardless of circumstances or excuses.
To illustrate, let's say a man falls off of a thousand foot cliff to a rock covered ground below. The law of gravity doesn't care if the man purposefully jumped off, accidentally fell off, or was deliberately pushed off. It doesn't make any difference whether the man knew about the law of gravity or not, whether he was wealthy or poor, intelligent or ignorant, righteous or wicked. This law will pull the man downward regardless of who he is or the reason why he left the edge of the cliff.
The law of gravity will also determine the speed at which this man will be traveling when he finally encounters the ground again. At that point, another law will come into effect - the law of stress. This law determines how much stress, or pressure, an object can take before breaking. Again, without regard to any of the above mentioned factors, this man's body, including his bones, organs, and flesh, will be subject to the law of stress. If the stress of the impact is above a certain, predictable amount for the physical material involved, the man's bones will break, his flesh will rip, and his organs will be damaged.
Then he will become subject to another law - a biological law of life. In order to sustain life, the body has to meet certain requirements, but if the fall has caused the body to lose enough of those needed requirements, the body will cease to function. If the body has not been damaged badly enough to die, then the man will become subject to the law governing the feeling of pain.
These laws are absolute, they don't discriminate and they make no allowances for errors, mistakes, or ignorance.
There is another eternal law which can be described as "the Law of the Harvest". Simply stated, we receive that which we give; what we do to others, will be done to us. This law requires that when we have caused harm to others, we must suffer for that harm. When we do evil to others, evil will be done to us. And conversely, when we do good, good will come to us. This is a law that even God cannot change.
However, even if He could, God would not change the Law, and the reason is simple: the Law is fair and just. There is nothing unrighteous or imperfect about it and therefore it's good and necessary to have. But, at the same time, the consequences of violating this Law can be deadly - both spiritually and temporally speaking. Since this Law requires that we suffer for what we have done wrong, Jesus came forth and suffered for our sins, thereby satisfying the demands of the Law.
It is at this point many people think that we have been freed from the Law - that it no longer applies to us. Jesus declared, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill." (Matthew 6:17) It's true that in this statement Jesus was referring to the Law of Moses, and to the prophesies concerning Him, but Jesus is also a Man of Law. He hasn't done away with the Law, nor has He changed any of the requirements of the Law. Even though He has satisfied the demands which the Law requires, we are still expected to obey the very Law from which He has bought us with His blood.
Let me illustrated what I mean by way of example. Let's say there's a farmer by the name of Larry Law who owns a large farm and has thousands of slaves that work for him. He requires his workers to get up at sunrise and work in the fields until sunset, cultivating the soil, planting seed, pruning and weeding and harvesting the crops. For this labor, he provides his slaves three meals a day and a place to sleep.
One day Jesus comes to Larry Law and asks to buy all his slaves. Larry states that the price for such a sale will be high, but Jesus agrees to pay it. Now, the slaves no longer belong to Larry Law but to Jesus. He is their new master and, as such, Larry Law has no more say over what they do or what happens to them.
Since these slaves now belong to Jesus, they have to do whatever He commands. If He is a worse master than Larry Law, the slaves have no way to complain. They must obey. On the other hand, Jesus could simply set them all free and let them go do whatever they want.
But Jesus knows this wouldn't be good for them or for Him, so he tells His newly bought slaves that He expects them to get up at sunrise, and work in the fields until sunset, cultivating the soil, planting seed, pruning and weeding and harvesting the crops. For this labor, he promises to provide them with three meals a day and a place to sleep.
Some will say that's exactly what Larry Law had them doing and they would be right, except for one difference: When a slave woke up in the morning feeling sick, Larry Law still expected them to work in the fields. If a slave became tired and slowed down while doing his chores, Larry Law punished them. If a slave didn't do their job correctly, even though they were unskilled or unlearned in their duties, Larry Law chastised them severely.
On the other hand, Jesus is a merciful and compassionate master. He's compassionate enough to let a sick slave rest until they're well enough to return to work. He's merciful enough to make allowances for a tired slave's lack of productivity. He's understanding enough to tolerate the mistakes of an unskilled or an unlearned worker. This is something that Larry Law is incapable of doing.
Yet, at the same time, Jesus cannot accept, nor will He permit a slave to deliberately be lazy or carelessly pull the plants out along with the weeds or create confusion or do harm to the other workers. To such a slave, the merciful and compassionate Jesus will discipline him as He sees fit.
Another example we could use to illustrate this point, is that of a man in debt. Suppose someone owed Larry Law $10,000, but all they had to their name was $1,000. Larry Law demands his money and nothing else will satisfy him. Since the debtor doesn't have the full amount, Larry Law has no other choice than to have the person thrown into debtor's prison. Upon seeing this person's sad situation, Jesus steps forward and pays Larry Law the $10,000 that's due him. At that point, Larry Law is satisfied because his demands have been met, and he's gotten what he wanted. However, the debtor still owes $10,000, but now they owe it to Jesus, not to Larry Law.
At this point Jesus has the option of making the debtor pay Him the full $10,000 or releasing them from their debt. However, if He were to completely free the debtor from their obligation, all they would learn is that they can run up a debt and not have to pay for it. This is not a wise way to teach someone fiscal responsibility. Therefore, Jesus asks the debtor to pay Him the full amount. When they reply they can't, He proposes a solution by allowing them to pay off their debt by performing certain tasks for Him. Although a few of these chores may seem hard, the debtor realizes that it's better to obey Jesus than go to prison for not having the money.
However, after working diligently to complete the tasks Jesus has given, one day the debtor is told that their obligationt has been paid in full, Yet, when the debtor calculates the cost of the work they've performed, they discover it only amounts to $2,000 worth of labor. It's then they realize that Jesus was willing to accept $2,000 worth of work to pay off a $10,000 debt. Although the debtor was still required to pay off their debt, Jesus showed them mercy, compassion and grace in the way He let them pay it back.
But, if the debtor hadn't honor the agreement they made with Jesus or if they had done sloppy work or had been lazy in carrying out His instructions they could hardly expect to be shown much mercy or compassion, let alone any grace. With such slothful behavior, Jesus would be justified in demanding payment in full or threatening the debtor with being put back in prison.
This is the exact sentiment which Jesus expressed 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 suffering be sore - how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I, God, hath suffered these things for all that they might not suffer if they would repent. But if they would not repent, then they must suffer, even as I." (D&C 19:15-17, italic added)
It's important to understand that the atonement of Jesus didn't do away with the Law. The Law is necessary, and we are still subject to it. The atoning death of Jesus has not released us from the Law but, since we now belong to Him, bought by His blood, He is able to show us mercy, compassion, and grace when we fail to live up to the requirements of the Law.
When we do something wrong there is still a price we have to pay. That is not only just, but it is fair, and it is right. Mercy and grace don't do away with justice, they merely soften the pain of suffering. For example, if a man is sentenced to be whipped ten times, mercy allows him to be given one lash a day rather than getting all ten at one time. If grace is used, then the man is whipped only five times instead of ten. Jesus is willing to show us mercy, compassion, and grace but He has no intention of doing away with justice. Justice still has to be done and neither mercy, compassion, nor grace can rob justice of what is right and fair.
Jesus said, "For behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto Him." (D&C 18:11)
Notice this scripture doesn't say that Jesus suffered the pains of all men so we could be free to do whatever we want (D&C 70:10). The reason He died was so that all men might have the opportunity to repent. Even though Christ suffered for our sins, we must still suffer for our own wickedness, but the difference is that mercy, compassion, and grace can now be shown whenever there is a need for justice.
If Jesus paid the price of our sins so that we can repent, then it becomes extremely important for us to understand what it means to truly repent and why it's such a necessary part of our salvation.
Jesus taught, "All things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal... for my commandments are spiritual; they are not natural nor temporal, neither carnal nor sensual." (D&C 29:34,35) All laws are spiritual in nature and as such they have spiritual significance. Repentance is a law, and therefore fulfills a spiritual purpose.
But what exactly is repentance? In its simplest, basic form, it's feeling sorrow for the wrongs we have done. The sorrow we feel is the suffering of our spirit for the sins we have committed and, without this suffering of the spirit, we have not paid the penalty of the Law.
To understand why this suffering of the spirit is so necessary, we need to realize that the greatest commandment of the Law is love: Love of God and love of our fellow man (Matthew 22:40). All other commandments are based on this one principle. It cannot be said that we really love God or man if we still lie, steal, cheat, bare false witness, or covet what belongs to another. In fact, the very opposite of love is hate, anger, jealousy, bitterness, resentment, selfishness, and egotism.
The apostle John wrote "God is love." (I John 4:8) The more we show love to others, the closer we become to being like God. The more we show concern about ourselves, and the less we care about others, the farther we get from becoming Christ-like. As such, repentance aids us in developing this godly attribute of love.
When Jesus walked the earth, His life was filled with examples of how He cared for the sick, the lame, the blind and the poor. Because of His great love, He did all in His power to relieve their pain and suffering - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. If that is true, then how do we show our love to others?
Let's say that someone swings their arm out and accidentally hits someone else in the nose. It would not be Christ-like to laugh at the pain of the person who was hit or to feel no remorse for hurting someone, even if it was by accident. If someone truly loved the person they had hit, they would feel an instant sense of sorrow for their actions and that sorrow would motivate them to find out if the person was all right and do what they could to reduce any pain they might have caused.
When they did that, they'd be living the law of repentance.
Therefore, genuine repentance not only means having a sense of true, sincere sorrow but it must cause us to want to undo the harm we've done to someone else. Without taking this action it cannot be said that genuine repentace has taken place. Another way to look at this is that to help someone whom we haven't hurt is Christ-like but to help someone we have hurt is only being fair and just. Therefore, to not help someone we have hurt is unrighteous and wicked.
This not only refers to hurting our fellow man, but also ourselves and God. When we do things that abuse our bodies, damage our self-esteem, and poison our minds, we need to feel a sincere sense of sorrow for our actions and strive to correct that which we have done wrong to ourselves. When we don't pay our tithing, attend our required meetings, or fulfill our callings, we have mocked God because, at our baptism, we promised to keep all of His commandments. Therefore, whether we have sinned against our neighbor, ourselves or God we need to properly repent.
Genuine repentance means we must feel a genuine sorrow for our wrongs. There must be a suffering of our spirit which leads us to make a sincere effort to repair whatever damage we have done. This type of repentance both satisfies the law of justice and, at the same time, helps us to become Christ-like in our behavior. Furthermore, it helps us to appreciate and respect the Law as God Himself does. To do any less fails to meet the requirements of the Law while retarding our growth to become like God.
To illustrate this point further, let's say that a child suddenly runs in front of a car and, despite the driver's best effort to stop in time, they still hit him. The suffering that the driver will feel will not be the same intensity as the person who accidentally hit someone in the nose. Understandably it will be much greater because they have caused much greater harm. If the child is only slightly bruised, the driver will feel less sorrowful than if the child has to be taken to the hospital. Likewise, the way the driver shows their sorrow will also depend on the amount of harm that has been done. This is a natural reaction of someone who has true love in their heart for their neighbor..
Thus, we see that the more sorrow we cause in others, the greater our suffering needs to be to atone for our harmful actions. At the same time, this act of repentance provides us with the opportunity to become more Christ-like in the way we show love to those whom we've wronged. However, that doesn't mean we should go about deliberately doing things for us to repent of. All of us have enough things to repent of already that we don't need to go around creating more reasons to repent.
But if we have to suffer for our own sins, then what good is Christ's atonement?
It must be remembered that the reason Jesus died was so that all men might have the opportunity to repent. True repentance occurs only when we genuinely suffer for our mistakes. However, because of Christ's atonement, we are no longer under the impartial, ridgedly exacting requirements of the Law. Because Jesus is now our master, mercy, compassion, and grace can be shown whenever justice needs to be satisfied. However, grace doesn't free us from the Law and mercy doesn't prevent justice from being done. The difference is that now it's Jesus who decides when we have suffered enough and not the Law.
As such, one person may suffer a little and Jesus will accept it as full payment, while another person may need to suffer much more before a wise and loving Savior decides they have satisfied their debt. The greater the sin, the greater the suffering must be.That is an eternal law. Therefore, the sincerity of our repentance and the gravity of our sins are what determine the amount of suffering Jesus requires from us.
This is not a hard doctrine to understand. Consider the situation of a father who catches his son doing something wrong. If the son has made a minor mistake and seems sincerely sorry, the father may only have to talk with him to see that he has learned his lesson. If, on the other hand, the son reacts with anger and resentment to such a talk, the father may need to take stronger disciplinary action to impress upon his son the error of his actions. On the other hand, if the son has done something seriously wrong, no matter how sorry he may be for it, a wise father must do more than have a talk with his son.
In the same way, Jesus seeks to teach each of us, individually, the importance of our mistakes. To those who are sincerely struggling to do what is right, He overlooks much. To those who rebel or are indifferent to His commandments, He requires more repentance for the same offense. The Law punishes us for the sake of punishment but Jesus uses the Law to discipline us for the sake of learning. If He didn't allow us to suffer for what we do wrong, we wouldn't learn, nor would we grow.
When we try to take the easy way out of repenting, when we try to avoid the sorrow and suffering of the spirit that's required, when we fail to correct the harm we have done to others, we not only delude ourselves into thinking we can avoid the penalties of the Law but we show disrespect for the Law and throw away a glorious opportunity to become more Christ-like by striving to put forth an increase of love in an effort to overcome the wrongs we've committed.
This is what the law of repentance is all about.