From the Pulpit: Notes on Repentance

In the noble tradition of literary hacks who never miss an opportunity to recycle old material, here are the interesting bits of a sacrament meeting talk I delivered in church today.

Repentance is, at its simplest, a turning away from sin and a returning to God. It is the process by which we set aside or overcome sins by changing our hearts, attitudes and actions to conform to God’s will. We’ve all seen diagrams of the plan of salvation, and we’ve watched as the spirits and bodies move across each stage of the plan toward our final reunion with Heavenly Father; repentance is the engine of that plan, it’s what moves us from stage to stage of our “eternal progression” toward Christ-like character. Repentance is especially crucial during this stage of the plan, earth life: in fact, inasmuch as repentance is a continual process of becoming more Godlike, we can say that repentance is the primary purpose of this life. Amulek instructed us to “improve our time while in this life,” warning us not to “procrastinate the day of our repentance until the end.” (Alma 34:33). The Personal Progress program is not only for young women: repentance is the Lord’s personal progress program for all of us, all the time. Spencer W. Kimball taught that “Repentance is the Lord’s law of growth, his principle of development and his plan for happiness.”

Like all principles of the gospel, repentance is interconnected with other doctrines, particularly with the crowning doctrine of the atonement. It is my suggestion that understanding these connections–contextualizing the principle, we might say–is more important for implementing repentance in our lives than it is for other aspects of gospel living. The important connecting role of repentance in our lives accounts for its centrality in the gospel message: through the Prophet Joseph, the Lord commanded his servants to “Say nothing but repentance unto this generation” (D&C 6: 9).

Repentance is the second in the “Top 5” principles of the gospel: faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. Faith precedes repentance both in the 4th article of faith and in our lives: without a knowledge of Christ, an understanding of and belief in the redemptive work of his atonement, and the model of his perfect life toward which we are striving, we would have neither the motivation nor the means to repent. Amulek’s masterful sermon in Alma 34–one of the most profound expositions of the atonement anywhere in scripture–uses the phrase “faith unto repentance” four times: in verse 15, for example, Amulek explains that Christ “shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.” Amulek seems to suggest that genuine faith in Christ leads directly to discipleship, and the discipline that discipleship requires. We can evaluate the strength of our faith by the regularity of real repentance in our lives.

I suggest that the process can be reversed, as well: while faith in Christ leads to repentance, it is my experience that repentance itself leads to a strengthened faith in and a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. I’ll make a confession here: it’s never been difficult for me to feel a relationship with God, because I communicate with him daily in prayer, and I often sense his answers to those prayers. But it’s been much more difficult for me to cultivate a relationship with Jesus Christ, as we’re taught to do, both because I felt there was nothing I could do to strengthen the relationship, and because I lack the vivid imagination necessary for empathizing with his pain. This has been something I’ve really struggled with. Although I still have a lot to learn, I’ve discovered at least two things I can actually do to feel closer to the Savior: first, I can serve others, since in service I’m both acting as if I were Christ serving and acting as if I were serving Christ; second, and the more important, I can repent. Repentance activates the power of the Christ’s atonement in my life, as Amulek so beautifully taught in the passage above: the intent and effect of Christ’s sacrifice is to allow the power of mercy to satisfy the demands that justice would make on the unrepentant sinner. Amulek continues in Alma 34:16, “And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.”

Faith in Christ leads to repentance, and repentance activates the redemptive power of the atonement in our lives, the power by which we are forgiven of our sins. But why must repentance precede forgiveness? Have you ever thought about this? I can forgive those who injure me even if they don’t repent–in fact, I’m commanded to do so! Why can’t Heavenly Father, in his infinite and unconditional love, forgive us our sins even when we don’t repent of them? I’m not sure I have the full answer to this question, but I want to suggest two possibilities. First of all, real repentance, with all that it entails, requires genuine meekness and humility in confessing and renouncing our sins. And meekness and humility are precisely the same qualities that are required to accept Christ’s gift of grace. Have you ever noticed how much humility it requires to gracefully accept a significant act of service? Meekness and humility are the hallmarks of a disciple, and only the disciples of Christ will be able to accept his merciful sacrifice. Second, repentance must precede forgiveness because forgiveness is a mutual process involving two parties: Heavenly Father and ourselves. I prefer the word “reconciliation” to “forgiveness,” because I think reconciliation better conveys the mutuality, the two-way dynamic, of the process. Christ’s parable of the prodigal son, for example, beautifully illustrates how both sinner and father must participate together in the process of reconciliation: “And he [the prodigal son] arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” Son and father approached each other: the son through repentance, and the Father through forgiveness.

“First faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, repentance; third–baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.” Repentance, the process by which we abandon our sins, prepares us for the twin ordinances of baptism by water and baptism by fire (or the receiving of the Gift of the Holy Ghost), the two-part process by which God cleanses us of the results of sin and forgives us for those sins. At baptism, we solemnize the remission of sins by making oaths or covenants with the Lord: we promise to keep his commandments, and he promises to purify us by virtue of the Holy Ghost. We renew these covenants weekly when we take the sacrament, and because repentance is the crucial preparation for baptism, it should also be the crucial preparation for the sacrament. There is nothing else we can do to better prepare ourselves for our weekly worship than to spend time in repentant prayer with God.

Because repentance is so closely connected to our baptismal covenants and their renewal at the sacrament, it’s appropriate that so many of our sacrament hymns focus on themes of repentance: meekness, covenants, forgiveness, purification. I’d like to conclude with the lovely text of hymn 180, which was written by Parley P. Pratt, and ask you to reflect as I read on the beauty of the doctrine of repentance.

Father in Heav’n, we do believe the promise thou hast made;
Thy word with meekness we receive, just as thy Saints have said.
We now repent of all our sin and come with broken heart,
And to thy covenant enter in and choose the better part.
O Lord, accept us while we pray, and all our sins forgive;
New life impart to us this day, and bid the sinners live.
Humbly we take the sacrament in Jesus’ blessed name;
Let us receive through covenant the Spirit’s heavenly flame.
We will be buried in the stream in Jesus’ blessed name,
And rise, while light shall on us beam the Spirit’s heav’nly flame.
Baptize us with the Holy Ghost and seal us as thine own,
That we may join the ransomed host and with the Saints be one.

17 comments for “From the Pulpit: Notes on Repentance

  1. Rosalynde,

    Brilliant, brilliant. I hope parts of this blog will make it into many Sacrament meeting talks, with due citation, of course. Perhaps we’ll find a footnote to this Blog in the Ensign someday.

  2. Aww, thanks Daddy! Don’t hold your breath for the footnote in the Ensign… maybe the Friend…?

  3. I really appreciate your description of a challenge in drawing nearer to Jesus Christ, and your use of repentance and service to do so. I think that Primary sets us up for a very personal feeling in our relationship to Heavenly Father, but I too have stuggled to feel a daily personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Somewhat prompted by a certain film about the Savior, I realized that I did not have a great personal knowledge of the life of Christ and not enough of a personal realtionship with Him. I have been on a personal quest since then to draw nearer to my Savior. I have been trying to “learn more of Him” and “do as He would do,” but I had not considered service or repentance as specific acts that I could do to help in this process. After reading your post, I realize now that those are two things I have been doing a lot more of throughout this journey. The most powerful experiences I have had in my life in understanding the Atonement and feeling the Savior’s love for me have been through the processes of my own repentance, in forgiving others of their sins against me, and through service. Growing up in my life as a Latter-day Saint, I don’t think that I considered enough that every week (and every week for the rest of my life) I have things to repent of and ask forgiveness for. I also feel that my nearness to and gratitude for the Savior directly affect my willingness to serve others. When I am close to Jesus Christ, I want to do more to show my love and gratitude for Him, and for the blessings in my life, by serving Him. Yet, as you say, the reverse is also true, at times when I haven’t felt like serving but did so anyhow, I have felt the nearness and the blessing of it in my life.

  4. Last week, I read a book called The Peacegiver, which puts the atonement in a perspective I’ve never heard before. I will have to read it again.

    I did not know loving parents, hence, it’s hard to envision (imagine) a loving God.

    But I get better at it. I had a God moment last week, won’t wax poetic here, but the impression I got was that as far as God is concerned, it’s over. All I have to do is turn to Him (not to minimize works, but I think grace is the more important aspect). For a few hours, I felt it.

    Another thing I think about this is that a sin is not between me and the person who sins against me. It’s between them and Christ, whatever happened between us was over 2000 years ago when Christ took it on in Gethsemane. My continued resentment towards that person is irrelevant and time-wasting. Intellectually, I knew that, but for a moment, I felt it spiritually.

    My understanding of the atonement and God is ever-evolving. I, like Laman and Lemuel, will probably forget that feeling by tomorrow.

  5. Thanks for posting this.

    One thought about identifying with Christ’s suffering.

    “But it’s been much more difficult for me to cultivate a relationship with Jesus Christ, as we’re taught to do, both because I felt there was nothing I could do to strengthen the relationship, and because I lack the vivid imagination necessary for empathizing with his pain. This has been something I’ve really struggled with.”

    My guess is that many (including me) don’t have the imagination necessary to empathize with his pain. I like the suggestions you offer for that. In addition, I think we could also say that we don’t need to know specifically what he suffered, or have imaginations for that. What we do need is to know our own pain, and those of our neighbors. Then we can know/remember that he’s carried that and descended below them all. That knowledge, I think, can bring faith unto repentence.

  6. As always, Keith hits the mark exactly. Charity, in all of its senses, is central to the Gospel because it is in charity that we imitate Christ. That requires knowing the suffering we can know and responding as we can respond.

  7. There are so many wonderful insights throughout your talk, Rosalynde — let me respond to just one: Repentance is one of the most gloriously positive principles of the Gospel — I love your description of it as the engine that propels us along the pathway back to Heavenly Father. Yet ask your average Church member (especially young people) their first reaction to the word repentance and you get things like “painful,” “hard,” “punishment,”
    “shameful”… How sad that this most positive of Gospel principles is viewed as the most negative by most of us! No wonder so many avoid repentance. I once had a seminary student who had determined he was going to do everything he could possibly do to keep from EVER having to repent. It wasn’t until he got to BYU and had an inspired Book of Mormon professor (obviously more inspired than his seminary teacher!) that he actually understood what repentance was all about: it is that process of becoming Christlike in every way, of having our actions and our minds and our hearts purified and transformed, it is the essence of eternal progress. In Hebrew the word is t’shuva, meaning “to return.” Repentance is the process of returning Home. We should be eagerly seeking every opportunity each day to repent, not dreading it as God’s harsh punishment for those who sin, the high price He exacts for His forgiveness.
    Here’s another interesting question that arises out of Rosalynde’s talk: Who do you feel closer to, Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ, and why? I’ve asked that in some of my Institute classes and have been surprised how many people feel much closer to Heavenly Father than to Christ. I would think, since we have so much more information about Christ’s life and can see aspects of His personality emerge from the Gospels (for example, He has a GREAT sense of humor that comes out in some of His parables!), PLUS we have all the great LDS artists these days filling our walls with various images of Christ (some I like better than others… another interesting question — Which painting comes closest to the Christ YOU know and love??) — I would think that everyone would naturally feel closer to Him (as I do) — but my very unscientific survey reveals quite the opposite. So I will throw the question out to this vast audience: Who do you feel closer to, Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ, and why???
    And, while we’re at it, which of the many popular paintings of Christ do you like the best??
    One last comment before I go back to my Monday chores (this is WAY too addicting!!!), I think Rosalynde and Keith and Jim are absolutely correct in saying that the best way we can come to know Christ better is through service and developing true charity in our lives. If we can see Christ in the suffering people all around us, then we are not far from the Kingdom. To quote Mother Teresa (has her temple work been done??) as she pointed to yet another example of human wretchedness: “Behold Jesus Christ in all His distressing disguises.”

    Good thoughts, all of you! Now go out and repent!!

  8. Thanks, Mama!

    Like I said in my talk, I feel closer to Heavenly Father than to Christ, at least I have since my mission; this is directly related to the fact that I pray to God, I think. On my mission I prayed so much, and so sincerely, and I had experiences that demanded such immediate and clear response to prayer, that I felt that I actually *did* have a real, mutual relationship with God. And although I tend to see God’s hand as less intrusive in my life than others do, I have certainly had experiences where I felt that Heavenly Father intervened fo rme benefit or instruction. With Christ, though, I’ve always felt that I had to imagine him, imagine his suffering, exert the emotional energy to muster empathy for a person I’ve never met; because I’m not an emotional person by nature, and because imagination is a lot of work for me, I’ve always felt this as something of a burden. That’s why it was such a relief to discover that there was something I could *do* to relate to the Savior, since I’m such a task-oriented personfhgjkl;a`123567990sadghjm.lpoiuytrrew

  9. Erp… I went to get Jack up from his nap, and when I came back I found that Elena can blog!

    You’re right about there being more scriptural information about Christ, and more artistic representations… unfortunately for me, I have serious problems personally relating to the scriptures (see my comment on the Hannah thread)–though this is not to say that I don’t love reading them!–and, while I enjoy paintings of Christ, the whole imagination-emotion disabled thing doesn’t make this a great way for me to feel connected to him.

    As for paintings of Christ… I like Heinrich Bloch images, and Minerva Teichert. (I currently have “Christ in a Red Robe” hanging in our home.) Mostly, though, I like symbolic images… my parents-in-law have a painting that I absolutely covet, a very large oil in an old-masters still-life style depicting a hanging palm frond, a chalice of wine and some broken bread.

  10. What an excellent post/talk Rosalynde! If all of our sacrament meeting talks were of that caliber we would have a lot easier time both with missionary work and with retention.

    I vividly remember the point in the MTC when it dawned on me that I felt very little real connection to Jesus Christ. It was the Father that I felt deeply connected to, and not the Son. It was the Father who I had fervently prayed to for all those years and it was the Father who I thought answered my prayers and worked miracles in my life. I even felt a stronger connection to the Spirit than I did to Christ. It seemed at the time that the Savior was simply the middle-man that let me have this marvelous and vibrant relationship with the Father through the Spirit.

    One of those very mature teachers of mine (probably a 23 year old) gave me some unorthodox advice at the time: He suggested I direct a few prayers to Christ instead of the Father as a test. Even the thought that I could attempt such a thing opened new vistas to me. Over the succeeding years it has become abundantly clear to me that all of those prayers I sent heavenward were heard by the Father and the Son. All of those miraculous answers I have received in my life are gifts from the Father and the Son. Christ was there all along — I just wasn’t giving Him his proper credit… He really is completely unified with the Father.

    I have never felt He held this misunderstanding against me, though. I get the feeling that for some reason… He really likes me…

  11. Response to #8: I’ve always felt closer to Christ, and I feel guilty about it. He seems nicer.

    I had an experience in the temple once, a personal revelation, I guess, or maybe just my mind working, and I thought, “I believe Christ is good, that He loves us, that He understands us, and He says God is good, so maybe I should believe Him.”

    I didn’t. But intellectually, I considered it. You’ve probably heard that thing that says “faith is not knowing God can, it is knowing God will.”

    I think many of my friends, we are not college professors, just ordinary Mormons doing the laundry, taking care of grandkids and aging parents, paying the bills, I’m the only one with the time to sit at the computer, but I think many of us feel the same way. We’ve talked about it.

    Somewhere in this thing that I still don’t understand hardly at all that you call a blog, I read someone say something about how little we really understand–and we are the true church! I agree with that statement, I think we have only an inkling of God’s reality.

  12. Is it just me, or do the admonitions to develop a , so to speak, personal relationship with Jesus Christ seem to be a recent kind of thing? As a convert to the church (age 10) I can’t remember hearing too much about my relationship with the Savior and even at BYU in the 70’s I remember George Pace getting into trouble for suggesting a need for a personal relationship. Then, as I recall, I really noticed a “drive” for Jesus… Oh excuse me, we don’t often say Jesus. The Savior or Christ seems to be preferred, because “Jesus” is too familiar?You know, a first name basis?
    I hear many people just one generation younger than I, seemingly addressing Jesus Christ in prayers while I was taught in no uncertain terms that WE pray to Heavenly Father. I have always wondered how I might develop a close relationship to someone I’m not allowed to speak to. Now, as I have witnessed in the temple(the woman Hanna …), I pray to H.F. through Jesus. In other words I tell him everything I want him to tell H.F.

  13. Rosalynde,
    Can you come and speak in my ward?! LOL That was a wonderful talk. I, too, wish I had a more emotional relationship with Christ. I think your suggestions of practicing repentence and service to develop such a relationship, are inspired. And your description of repentance as an engine rings very true to me.
    Thank you for this beautiful post.


  14. I can’t imagine anything making Jesus happier than knowing that we feel close to our Heavenly Father. Even if we do feel closer to the Father than the Son, I think it makes no difference to Jesus, or Heavenly Father for that matter. As Geoff pointed out, they are one. Even if they weren’t, our Savior’s greatest purpose was to bring us closer to the Father. Jesus said, “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” This refers to the Atonement, of course, but also to the same prayers that sometimes make us feel closer to the Father. I believe we say those prayers in the name of Jesus Christ because it is through the Savior’s love and sacrifice that we can even hope to approach the Father—even on the level of rudimentary communication. The Savior describes one of his many roles as being “the way” and this can perhaps be read as a sort of conduit whereby our thoughts and prayers reach Heavenly Father. Although we may want to have a closer relationship with Jesus, it may not be essential if we already have that close relationship with the Father. Jesus did say, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” This would suggest to me, Jesus wouldn’t have it any other way; in spite of the fact many of us might feel we’re slighting the Lord by being closer to the Father, the Savior has no real need for that attention. This is primarily because he is one with the Father, but also if we’re close to the Father at all it’s because Jesus has brought us there. As he teaches in John 14:6, there is no other way. That verse is so popular that we rarely read what follows, “If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.” It’s hard to imagine anyone having a more personal relationship with Jesus than the apostles, but true to his character and his divine purpose Jesus quickly directs them to the Father and points out that you can’t have one relationship without the other. So it seems to me, Rosalynde, that you might be closer to the Savior than you realize.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, I don’t think you lack “vivid imagination” and I would never say you’re “not an emotional person by nature.” I could be wrong maybe you have turned into an unimaginative robot over the years. I don’t think so. Even so, it’s probably misguided to believe imagination is the key to a closer relationship with Jesus.

    Whether someone is human or divine you can’t imagine your way into a closer relationship with them. Believe me, I’ve tried.

  15. No, Brian, you’ve got it wrong: I wasn’t being self-deprecating by calling myself unimaginative and unemotional; I was flattering myself by implying that I’m supremely rational and analytical. Which I am, should my behavior on other threads (not to mention in college) tempt you to doubt.

    You make really good points; the John 14:6 reference is especially relevant. Truth be told, I’m often uncomfortable with the way in which a “personal relationship” with Christ is discussed; I think you show very well why that sort of thinking falls short of the mark. Still, though, to be able to give the atonement its supreme place in my life, I often feel that I must muster some kind of *feeling* that I feel incapable of. (And yes, I used “feel” three times just then. I maintain that I am unemotional; if I were emotional, I would have a better vocabulary for discussing emotion.)

  16. Dear Rosalynde,
    I was delighted to discover you quite serendipitously. Although I have left the LDS church and am now a staunch Episcopalian/Anglican, I thought your comments on repentance and developing a relationship with Jesus were not only right on target but very profound. Thank you.

    In fact, I am writing because I would like to get in touch with your mother. We are old, old friends from the Globe High School band (I played the bassoon) and the Globe Ward. I knew all the Hansens, of course (Kim was in my class), and I was especially inspired by your grandmother. I wil also note that I actually saw YOU being breastfed as an infant when your dad was in law school at Duke.

    When you get a chance, please let your mother know that Vicki Bozzola asked afer her.

    God’s peace,

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