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.