The apostle Paul wrote, "For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death" (2 Corinthians 7:10).
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that proper repentance includes performing five steps: 1) Godly sorrow for sins committed, 2) confession of sins to those offended, 3) making restitution as far as possible for the wrongs committed, 4) forsaking our sinful acts by not repeating them again, and 5) keeping the commandments of God.
The stated reason why we need to repent is so that we can be forgiven for the sins we've committed. Since each of us sin in some manner or other every day, that means we need to repent every day. But if one of the conditions of repentance is that we are to refrain from repeating the sins we've committed in the past, it would seem that it shouldn't take us very long before we are living a sinless life. The fact that we continue to sin every day would therefore seem to indicate that we are not truly repenting as required.
This then leads us to an even more troubling aspect of repentance. If true repentance requires us to feel "godly sorrow," and we need to repent every day, that's means faithful Christians would be going through each day in a state of sorrow and misery. Yet the word "gospel" means "good news." But what's so "good" about feeling sorry all the time? More than that, Joseph Smith taught that "happiness is the object and design of our existence," and the scriptures tell us that "men are that they may have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25). Yet, the way to becoming happy and having joy is to continually repent, which means being in a constant state of sorrow.
However, the problem with repentance grows even more puzzling when we consider the atonement of Jesus. We define the atonement as Christ having suffered and died as a means of paying the penalty for our sins. If that is true, they why do we need to repent?
Perhaps we can illustrate the problem this way. Let's say that I find a friend's wallet laying around and I take a ten dollar bill out of it. A little later my friend finds his wallet, notices the money is gone and asks me if I know anything about it. I look him in the eye and lie, saying that I know nothing about his missing money. As such, I have now become a thief and a liar.
After awhile, my conscience begins to bother me and, in time, I go to my friend, admit my lie and give him back his ten dollars. First of all, since I have returned his money, he is no worse off than he was before. Therefore, I have paid the penalty of my crime so that everything has been restored back to the way it was before I took his money. More than that, it was painful and humiliating for me to confess my lie to him, which means I suffered for the sins I committed. In that case, what reason is there for Christ to have atoned for my sins if I have to suffer and pay the penalty myself for them? Or, to ask the question is reverse, why do I have to suffer and pay the penalty for my own sins if Christ has already paid that debt?
The answer to this question is found in D&C 18:11 which reads, "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." Upon a quick reading of this verse, it would seem that this sentence merely restates the problem. In other words, it tells us that Jesus suffered the pain of all men and that we therefore need to repent and come unto him. But it doesn't seem to answer the question of why we need to repent, especially if Christ has already suffered for our sins.
However, as we look at this sentence more carefully we see this is not the correct interpretation. Perhaps if we add a few clarifying words, we might gain a better understanding of what this verse is actually telling us. Therefore, let's restate it this way: "For behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh. [end of sentence] Wherefore [the reason why] he suffered the pain of all men [is so] that all men might [have the opportunity to] repent and [thereby be able to] come unto him [where He is and dwell with Him]."
When read this way, we learn that it is because of the atonement of Christ that we are able to repent. If Christ hadn't suffered and paid the penalty of our sins, we could repent every minute of every hour of every day of our entire life and it would have no saving effect. But because Christ bought us with His blood, true repentance on our part can now actually bring about a forgiveness of our sins.
To understand why, let's go back to our previous example. Because I stole money from my friend, I became a thief, and just because I gave him back his money doesn't erase that fact. I could give him back $10,000 but I would still have been a thief. Nothing I can do will remove the act of my stealing. Perhaps the only thing that could do that is if I were able to go back in time and have a second chance to do it over again. But since that is not possible, it is therefore impossible for me to undo my sin. And the same goes for my lie. Once I tell a falsehood, I became a liar. Even if I never tell another lie for the rest of my life, that one lie still was committed and it remains forever. According to what the scriptures teach, thieves and liars cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (see 1 Cor. 6:10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5). Therefore, all it takes is just one lie or one theft, or one sin of any kind, no matter how small it may be, and we are automatically prevented from returning to the celestial kingdom of our Father in heaven.
The reason for that is because nothing unclean can dwell in the presence of God (see 1 Nephi 10:211, Alma 11:37). But why is that? Is it because God just arbitrarily made up that rule? Not at all! There are laws which God Himself must obey in order to remain as God. The Lord has taught us "For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory. (D&C 88:22). The reason why our Father in heaven is God is because He is obedient to those laws which govern the place where He lives (which we refer to as the celestial kingdom). If God were to allow just one sin to exist in the celestial kingdom, it would no longer be heaven). That is why "the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance" (Alma 45:16, D&C 1:31), because if He were to allow even one sin - however small it might be - to exist in heaven, it would make heaven an imperfect place. Therefore, to safeguard the kingdom of heaven, as well as those who dwell there, "God, [can] not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence" (Alma 13:12). He has no other choice!
The atonement of Christ, in some way we can't presently understand, makes it possible to have our sins completely and permanently erased as though they never happened. That means, through the atonement of Christ, we can become pure and innocent as though we never committed even one sin, no matter how many sins we've made. If this were not so, we could not enter into the celestial kingdom.
But, if Christ died, suffered, and paid the penalty for our sins, why do we still need to repent?
The scriptures tells us, "And he [(God] commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God" (2 Nephi 9:23).
Repentance is a commandment, and the reason why God gives us commandments is for one reason only - so that we can be saved in the kingdom of God. Without the atonement of Christ, all of our repenting would be useless. But, without repentance on our part, the atonement of Christ would be just as meaningless. The two go together. As such, both are necessary for us to be saved in the kingdom of God.
To better understand the answer to this question we need to go back to our pre-mortal existence where we lived as spirit children of our Father in heaven. At some point in our development there as children, our Father presented a plan whereby we could further grow to become like Him. That plan called for the creation of a physical earth where we would live for a short period of time and learn certain lessons that would help us in our spiritual development. One of the purposes of coming here to earth was to gain a physical body. And the reason why this was so important is because our Father in heaven has a physical body. Therefore, to become like Him, we too needed to gain a physical body of our own.
But the body we have requires sleep. Under most circumstances, everyone needs to sleep every day if they want to feel energetic for the next day's work. Medical doctors say that the average person needs at least five to seven hours of sleep each night in order for their bodies to become rested enough to function properly. That means, we spend nearly one-third of our life here on earth sleeping! Does God need to sleep every single day in order to feel good enough to carry out His work? The scriptures seem to indicate that God is awake all the time.
Under most circumstances, everyone needs to eat every day, and usually three times a day. If we don't, we become weak, tired, and sometimes headachy and perhaps irritable as well. Does God need to eat three times a day in order for His body to maintain its energy? From time to time, we get sick, with either a cold, a flu, or some other illness. Is God's body susceptible to sickness as well? As we get older our body becomes full of aches and pains. Our bones develop arthritis, our eyesight dims, our hearing decreases, and our strength fades. Does God's body become weaker and more impaired the older He gets?
The answer to all of these questions is: No! God's body works perfectly all the time. His body doesn't need sleep, or food. His body doesn't become sick or get out of balance. In fact, His body is incapable of becoming weak or impaired in any manner.
Then, if we came to earth to gain a physical body because our Father in heaven has one, why are our bodies so inferior to His?
The apostle Paul explained, "For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope" (Romans 8:20).
The "creature" Paul is referring to in this scripture is man. What Paul is telling us is that the creature - man - was made subject to vanity. Our bodies were deliberately and purposefully designed to be vain. To demonstrate this fact, all we have to do is look at children. As precious and wonderful as they are, all of them are extremely selfish. It is almost impossible to find a two year old child who is considerate enough to put the needs of others above their own. In fact, just the exact opposite is true. Nearly all children that age are extremely self-centered. They have to be taught how to be obedient. They have to be trained to share things with others. They have to be instructed on how to be kind and loving. None of these things come naturally to them. In addition to these character flaws, our bodies were also deliberately made subject to sickness, pain, and other infirmities.
Paul states that we were intentionally made this way, but not because of any willingness on our part. It wasn't our idea to possess this kind of a body. Our desire was to have a body like our Father's. Then why did God make us this way? Paul wrote that the reason why God subjected man to this kind of a body was "in hope."
In hope of what?
The whole purpose of the plan of salvation is to help and aid in bringing to pass the immortality and the eternal life of God's children. The reason why we were subjected to vanity and other imperfections was in hope that it would help us become worthy of inheriting the kingdom of God, which includes inheriting all that God has.
But how could being subjected to such an unrighteous condition make us become more righteous?
Once again we need to go back to our pre-mortal existence. When we lived in the celestial kingdom we lived in an environment that was filled with love. How do we know this? Because the scriptures tell us that "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16). Notice that John doesn't say that "love" is one of God's attributes. He expressly states that "God is love." Although He has a tangible, physical body, made in the shape and form of a human, that does not change the fact that God still is love. He's not just a loving being, He is the very personification of love itself. Love isn't merely one of God's qualities. Love is who God is. That's a hard concept to understand in our present mortal condition because there is nothing in our earthly experience to which we can compare it to, but it's none-the-less true.
In the same way, the scriptures tell us that that God is light (1 John 1:5; D&C 50:24; see also Mosiah 27:29; D&C 88:12-13). God is also truth because light is truth. Therefore, God is love, light, and truth. And as such, love light and truth permeates and fills all of heaven. Thus, before coming to earth, we lived in an environment that bathed and surrounded us with love, light, and truth. Since God is perfect, we also lived in a perfect environment. Since God is righteous, we likewise lived in a righteous environment.
If we did nothing at all, and just went with the flow of things, doing what everyone else did, we would automatically do that which was righteous, loving, and perfect. In order to do something contrary to that environment, we would have to deliberately go out of our way to do it. And if we did, everything acted as a barrier to prevent us from succeeding at doing that which was wrong. It would take great effort on our part to oppose the natural order of heaven. And if we slacked off just a little in our effort to go against the tide of perfection, we would quickly find ourselves being pulled back to a righteous state of behavior. As a result of living in such an environment, even the thought of doing something unrighteous never occurred to us. And if it ever did, we would have no desire to act on that thought.
Therefore, to help make us become stronger and wiser, God deliberately set us in an environment where we could experience the exact opposite of heaven. We were given a body that is naturally inclined to do that which is wicked and unrighteous. In this new environment, if we allow ourselves to go with the flow of things, doing what comes naturally to us, we will automatically become more and more wicked. In order to do anything of a righteous nature, we have to deliberately go out of our way to do it. And when we do, everything in this mortal world acts as a barrier to prevent us from succeeding. In order to live a more spiritual life, we have to continually put forth great effort to have any degree of success. And if we slack off even a little in our efforts, we find ourselves being quickly pulled back into a state of wickedness.
Yet, it is in this intense struggle to do what is right, mightily fighting against our natural tendencies to do what is wrong - which tendencies God deliberately subjected us to - that we grow, both in spiritual strength and in spiritual wisdom. This is what God is hoping for us.
But why is repentance so important in helping us achieve the goal which God has prepared for us?
Perhaps we can illustrate this by way of an example.
People join a health spa for the purpose of becoming healthier and more physically fit, especially in the area of muscle tone and strength. Most health spas require a membership fee and a contract which obligates the new member to pay for a stated number of months (usually 12-24). In exchange for paying the membership fee, the spa agrees to provide a fitness program that is tailored to the specific needs of that individual. Some spas will go so far as to guarantee that if a person follows this program they will increase the size and strength of every muscle in their body.
As long as the member is properly exercising as they have been instructed, their muscles become firmer and stronger. However, the opposite is just as true. If the member fails to exercise as they agreed, their muscles become lax and lose their strength. Thus, our muscles are either being strengthened or weakened depending on the amount of proper exercise we give them.
The same is true of our spirituality. It is in the struggle against unrighteousness that we develop the strength of character that helps us become more like our Father in heaven. When we slack off in that struggle, our spiritual strength weakens. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word from which we translate the English word "repent" is "shaub" which means "to turn from." In the New Testament, the Greek word we translate as "repent" is "metanoeo" which means "to change one's thinking in a way that changes one's way of life." Therefore, to "repent" actually means that we stop going in one direction, turn ourselves around, and begin going in a different direction. It means to change our thinking from following one course of action to becoming committed to following a different course of action than the one we're presently taking.
In our example of the spa, if, after someone has begun following the fitness program designed for them, they begin to slack off on doing their exercises, they have, in effect, "repented" or, in other words, turned themselves around and have gone back to their former way of doing things. In order for them to return to their fitness schedule they must again "repent," or, in other words, turn themselves around yet again, and return to doing their exercises. And the way we turn ourselves around is by changing the way we think about things. Thus, repentance is really an attitude.
The person who says, "I know I ought to be doing my exercises, and some day I will, but not right now," hasn't really had a change of attitude. As such, they haven't really repented because they haven't really changed the direction of their behavior. Knowing the value of exercising and actually doing the exercises are not the same thing. It's only when a person becomes committed to consistently doing their exercises that they will achieve the results they desire.
Whether we were born in the Church or were converted, each of us were taught the gospel. At some point in our life, we made a conscious decision that we liked what God was offering us and wanted to join His Church. But, there was a price we had to pay for our membership, and that price was to offer up our heart, mind, and soul to God. We then signed a contract to follow the exercise program which God has designed for us. That contract was signed when we willingly consented to be baptized. At that point in time we made a covenant that we would keep the commandments which God has given us. And the reason why God gives us commandments is to help us become spiritually stronger. It's God's exercise program. By design, every commandment is meant to help prepare us to become saved in the kingdom of God. If we faithfully follow those commandments, God guarantees us that we will inherit all that He has. And the reason why He can make that guarantee is because those commandments are designed to help us develop the same kind of characteristics that God possesses.
Often times we start out with the best of intentions, and, for awhile, we live as God has commanded us. As we do, we find ourselves becoming spiritually stronger. But then there may come times when we let the cares of the world distract us from what we know we should be doing, or perhaps we become discouraged, thinking it's too hard to keep all the commandments, so we slack off. Sometimes we feel we're doing well enough the way we are and stop putting forth any more effort than what we're already doing. In all of these instances, in effect, we've "repented" or turned away from the covenant we've made with God. But, when we do that, we are impeding our own spiritual progression Therefore, to become spiritually stronger, we must change our thinking by repenting again and re-turn to following God's commandments once more.
Repentance isn't merely feeling sorry for the wrongs we've done. Repentance isn't just confessing our mistakes. Repentance isn't about us suffering or being punished for our sins. Repentance doesn't happen just because we've restored or repaired the damage we've done. True repentance is when we have a genuine change in attitude. It's when we resolve within ourselves that we are going to stay focused on following God's exercise program. It's when we rekindle that desire to be worthy to live with God in His celestial environment. As such, repentance means turning our heart, mind, and soul back to doing things God's way rather than our way. And until that happens, then we haven't truly repented.
However, no amount of repentance on our part can undo the wrongs we've committed. Only Christ's atonement can do that. But, when we truly have a repentant heart, we are demonstrating to Christ that we have a sincere desire to want to become spiritually strong and worthy enough to inherit all that He has. It's our way of honestly and sincerely saying that if we could undo the wrongs we've committed we would. And it is that attitude on our part which then allows Christ to do for us that which we are incapable of doing for ourselves - have our sins wiped away as though we had never committed them.
On the other hand, without genuine repentance on our part, we would not have learned how to overcome the temptations that are meant to help us become spiritual giants. Therefore, we would remain spiritually weak in the same sense that young children are weaker than their parents. And if that were the case, then it would be foolish for Christ to wipe away our sins, thereby allowing us to come unto Him where He dwells and sit with Him on His throne, even as He has sat down on His Father's throne (see Rev. 3:21). That would be like allowing a five year old child to drive a car all by themselves, any time they wanted, without first demonstrating they have the wisdom or the skill to drive it. Therefore, repentance is an essential part of our preparation to receive all that the Father has.
But there is still another aspect of repentance that we need to consider. Imagine if you invited some people over to dinner and they accepted your offer, but, after spending all day preparing a sumptuous feast for them, they refused to eat your food when they arrived. If that were to happen, then you would have spent your money, time, talent, and energy on their behalf for nothing! More than that, such an attitude on their part would make a mockery of all your efforts on their behalf. The atonement of Christ made it possible for us to repent, and He paid a terrible price to provide us with that opportunity. When we fail to take advantage of the blessing of repentance, it's as though He died for nothing for us! More than that, when we turn from God and refuse to follow His exercise program that's meant to help us become exalted with Him, our attitude makes a mockery of what Christ has endured for our sake.
God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that we could have eternal life (see John 3:16). When we willingly turn our heart and mind away from the tendencies of the natural man and give all that we have to Christ in recognition of His sacrifice for us, then we are demonstrating that, like our Father in heaven, we too possess that same kind of love that God has for us.
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