Summary: Repentance has been described as feeling godly sorrow for the things we’ve done wrong and includes confessing our sins to God and making restitution for the harm we’ve done to others. But what happens when we truly repent and have a sincere desire not to commit the same sin again, and then we do it again? Worse yet, what happens when we keep making the same sin over and over again despite our sincere desire to never do it again? This article helps answer that question.
The Lord has told us, “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins–behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43).
The most crucial aspect of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that of repentance. It is the key to salvation because without it we cannot be saved. Baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, temple ordinances, serving Christ and others are all essential to salvation, but without repentance everything else is meaningless.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we talk about a lot about the atonement of Christ and how he paid the penalty for our sins, but in order for his atonement to have a saving effect in our life it requires that we repent of our sins because Christ can only forgive us to the degree that we genuinely repent of them.
Repentance has been described in many ways. It means feeling godly sorrow for the things we’ve done wrong. It’s been described as turning over a new leaf, meaning that we change our ways by no more doing a particular sin. It includes confessing our sins to God and making restitution for the harm we’ve done to others.
These are the elements that make up what is called “genuine repentance.” On the other hand, when we make a half-hearted attempt at repentance, or are only sorry because of the consequences of our actions, or when our repentance is only made with our lips, rather than with our heart, then it can be described as insincere or pretended repentance. It’s when we have shown God that we truly are sorry for what we have done that the effect of Christ’s atonement can be applied in our life and our sins can then be forgiven.
But what happens when we truly repent and have a sincere desire not to commit the same sin again, and then we do it again? Worse yet, what happens when we keep making the same sin over and over again despite our sincere desire to never do it again? If repentance means completely forsaking our sins, and forgiveness is only given for truly repenting, does that mean our sins haven’t been taken away?
One day, during the moral life of Jesus, one of his disciples asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive my neighbor? Seven times? Jesus answered saying, I say unto you, not seven times but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). This scripture seems to suggest that as often as we repent, God will forgive us each and every time, and indeed, modern-day prophets have taught this very principle. But if that is so, then why do the scriptures also tell us that the way we know if a person has truly repented is when they have confessed their sins and forsaken them (D&C 58:43)?
What’s even more confusing is that if God will forgive us each and every time we repent, even when we keep committing the same sin over and over again, then it would seem that all we have to do is say we’re sorry but without needing to make any changes in our behavior. This apparent contradiction causes us to wonder, what exactly constitutes genuine repentance?
This problem arises when we think of repentance as an event, where in one moment of time we make a conscious, committed decision to never ever do a particular sin again, and we keep that self-made promise. This would be what it means to truly forsake our sins. But if that were the case, then all of us would become perfect in a relatively short period of time, as we effectively eliminate each and every sin in our life one at a time.
However, it’s safe to say that no one can actually do that. As committed as we may be, none of us are capable of never remaking certain sins, and that’s because we live in an imperfect world with a physical body that is naturally inclined to sin. Therefore, if repentance is a one-time event, then none us would ever be worthy of being totally forgiven of all of our sins.
Jesus said that we should be perfect to the same degree and in the same way that our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48), however, that kind of perfection is impossible to achieve in this life. Perfection not only comes slowly, a little at a time, but it comes as a result of much failure. Perfection is a process we go through much like baking a cake that is made by combining a number of very different ingredients that must be thoroughly blended together and then placed in a very hot oven for a specific length of time before it becomes something delicious to eat.
In the same way, we must experience many different kinds of situations, some of which are not as pleasant as others, but after being put through the fire of adversity and failure, it’s the sum total of our experiences, blended together, that will be necessary in order for us to become perfect.
We can also think of perfection as a long journey that takes us through sunshine and rain, heat and cold, flat plains and steep mountains, as well as traveling on smooth roads and wading through deep waters. It’s by persevering through any and every obstacle that we are able to finally reach our destination.
An essential ingredient in this process or an absolutely necessary provision for our journey towards perfection, is repentance. Without it the process cannot be completed and the journey becomes impossible to make. Therefore, if perfection is a process or a journey then so is repentance. It doesn’t happen at one point in time but is something that requires constant and persistent effort.
Just like perfection, repentance happens a little at a time and is often developed and refined only after many attempts. It is something we learn to do and, like any skill, it must be practiced before we become proficient at it.
Before we came to earth, we understood that if we failed to live up to even one commandment we could not return to heaven, but our Father’s plan provided a way for our sins – however many of them there would be – to be paid for and removed. This was the purpose of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. But being forgiven of our sins is not for the purpose of allowing us to continue sinning, but rather it gives us the opportunity to learn how not to sin, and that knowledge and skill most generally comes from our failures. But failure, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily give us the knowledge we need. We grow from our mistakes only if we try to learn from them. Therefore, it’s our effort to repent that matters more so than how well we’re repenting.
To illustrate this point, suppose that someone wants to learn to play the piano. Especially in the beginning, they will make many mistakes, but the piano teacher is not surprised, discouraged, or upset when this happens because they know that mistakes are expected and even necessary if the student is going to learn. Therefore, even when a student makes a lot of mistakes, the teacher patiently corrects, instructs, and encourages their pupil to try again, with the goal of helping them to improve.
However, if the student doesn’t practice their lessons, or shows no interest in trying to learn and doesn’t care if they make mistakes, then the teacher’s response will be much different. Worse yet, the student’s piano skills won’t improve and they may never be able to play the piano well. Yet, if there comes a time when the student decides they really do want to play the piano and are ready to put in the necessary effort, then their skills will begin to develop. And as long as their commitment continues, they will eventually be able to play beautiful music on the piano.
This same principle applies to repentance. Overcoming a sin – any sin – is no different than learning a skill. It takes time, practice, and determination, and it will involve making mistakes, and often many mistakes. When that happens, repentance is like the student who keeps trying, over and over again, until they can get their musical lesson done right. In the same way, when someone knows they’re not keeping God’s commandment as they should and it bothers them, then they are motivated to keep trying to increase their spiritual growth.
Unfortunately, overcoming some sins isn’t as easy as learning to play a particular piece of music. While some commandments are easy to keep, there are others that take a great deal of effort, and not everyone struggles with the same issue. For some, paying tithing is a huge problem where others find it easy to do. For some, living the word of wisdom is hard, while others embrace it quickly. And the same is true for keeping the Sabbath day holy, reading our scriptures daily, being honest, or overcoming anger. Some people find it hard to be forgiving when offended, and some people struggle with various forms of addiction.
But it doesn’t matter what problems are keeping us from being perfect. What matters is if we are striving to overcome them. Sometimes a person can become discouraged when they keep failing no matter how hard they try, and when that happens, it’s not uncommon for them to give up trying, figuring that they will never overcome their weakness, so they tell themselves that there’s no more use in trying. But, even when that happens, if their desire is to want to do what’s right, it won’t be long before they find themselves, almost impulsively, trying yet again, with renewed energy and hope, to overcome their weaknesses.
Just like the piano teacher who is patient with the student who is trying, so also, our Savior is extremely patient with those who are sincerely striving to overcome their faults and weaknesses, no matter how long it takes. Our heavenly Father is no different than a parent who watches their toddler struggling to walk. He encourages us to keep moving forward, and when we fall down, he inspires us to get up and try again, because he knows that if we don’t give us, we will eventually learn to become perfect. For someone with an attitude like this, Jesus is willing to forgive them seventy times seventy and more if need be.
But the person who knows they’re doing something they shouldn’t but doesn’t care, God exhibits a different attitude toward them. When someone only gives lip service to repentance, or who makes an occasional, half-hearted attempt to change their ways, or whose repentance is short-lived, then the Lord isn’t as incline to grant their request for forgiveness.
However, forgiveness of sins is not the only benefit that comes as a result of repentance. When a piano student is having trouble playing a certain piece of music, the teacher doesn’t just overlook their slipups. Instead they encourage and teach. In other words, the student isn’t learning by themselves but is getting help in how to play better.
Another example of this is when someone is practicing to play a part on stage for a theatrical performance. Even professional actors are given instruction by the director on how to enhance their acting. In the same way, when we sincerely repent, God not only is willing to forgive our mistakes, no matter how many times we make them, but he is also there helping us to improve.
The apostle Paul told the saints in Thessalonica, “And [may] the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). We cannot become perfect by our own efforts alone. It is God who sanctifies us so that we can “be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is our teacher, our trainer, our strength, and our support as we struggle to overcome our sins. Without his help, we can never become perfect, no matter how hard we try. But with his help we are guaranteed to someday become just as perfect as our Father in heaven.
When it comes to repentance, what’s most important to God is our intention. Jesus taught “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). If our desire is to do good then our actions will show it in the way we repent. As Jesus also taught, “Those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart” (Matthew 15:18). What God looks for is the desires of our heart. If our desire is to become more like Christ, then our attitude toward repentance will show it. On the other hand, if the desire of our heart is to be more like the world, then that too will be evident in the way we repent.
Without repentance, the gates of heaven remain closed to us. The key to unlocking those gates is repentance because without it we can’t even be baptized, and without partaking of that ordinance no one can enter into heaven. But the key that unlocks the power of repentance that leads to salvation is our desire to want to forsake our sins.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Salvation