In the December 2013 Ensign, Brian D. Garner of the Church Correlation Department wrote a five-page article titled “The Good News of Repentance” (pp. 40-44). As I was reading this piece—subtitled “There is great joy in heaven whenever we repent in sincerity of heart”—I was struck by what I believe is really the bad news of repentance, at least when referred to in the context of Mormonism.
Garner talks about how the word “gospel” means “good news.” Saying repentance “is among our greatest blessings,” he asks, “What can compare to the freedom, confidence, peace, and joy that come from complete repentance and forgiveness?” (p. 41) On the next page, he writes, “The importance of repentance is better understood when we realize that it is a key that unlocks the blessings of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice.”
It sounds well and good. After all, Christianity certainly talks about the importance of repentance. But the author’s Mormonism comes into play in the next two columns, which are filled with LDS passages talking about what is required in addition to repentance. Although he says this “principle with a promise is certain,” the verses he provides don’t appear to support this notion (all italics are his):
- “I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven” (D&C 1:31-32).
- “Whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child” (3 Nephi 9:22).
- “If ye will repent and return until me with full purpose of heart” (3 Nephi 10:6).
- “If they will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts” (3 Nephi 21:22).
- “Turn unto me and hearken unto my voice and believe and repent of all thy transgressions, and be baptized” (Moses 6:52)
- For good measure, D&C 1:32 is again quoted, with an emphasized “and”: “He that repents and does the commandments of the Lord”
- “Repent and walk more uprightly before me” (D&C 5:21).
- “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:43).
Based on these verses, Garner writes,
“Forsaking or discontinuing a sin is more difficult when that sin is a part of our natural inclination or has become an addictive habit. However, the Savior’s repeated instruction is clear: ‘Go, and sin no more’ (John 8:11; see also D&C 6:35). The difficulty of forsaking sin is magnified by the possibility of facing that temptation every day for the rest of our lives.”
Notice, the principle to “go, and sin no more” is “clear.” And then he adds this:
“To those who struggle with confession and forsaking sin, consider the Lord’s counsel as you seek added strength: ‘Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting’ (Matthew 17:21; see also Isaiah 58:6). Fasting can lead to increased spiritual power and self-control, especially when combined with prayer and scripture study.”
I struggle with sin! In fact, so did Paul. He wrote in Romans 7:18-25:
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] a slave to the law of sin.
According to the article, the secret for those struggling with “forsaking sin” involves prayer, fasting, and scripture study. Then, on page 43, Garner writes,
“After doing all they can to repent, some worry whether they have been forgiven. The Lord has said that when we refuse to repent, He ‘will withdraw [His] Spirit’ (Helaman 13:8) and that as we repent, He will ‘pour out [His] Spirit’ upon us (Proverbs 1:23). Therefore, when we regularly feel the influence of the Holy Ghost in our lives, we can be assured that the Lord has forgiven us (see Mosiah 4:1-3).”
I am bewildered about how we, as sinners, are supposed to “feel” God’s presence in our lives. Does this mean when I don’t “feel” forgiven, I’m not, and if I feel pretty good about myself, then somehow I am? Is God’s forgiveness based on my success in squelching sin from my life? Indeed, the words of twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball are just plain scary:
“Each command we obey sends us another rung up the ladder to perfected manhood and toward godhood; and every law disobeyed is a sliding toward the bottom where man merges into the brute world. Only he who obeys law is free. Serfdom comes to him who defies law. ‘The truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32) was another of the incontrovertible truths authored by the Master. He truly is free who is master of situations, habits, passions, urges, and desires. If one must yield to appetite or passion and follow its demands, he is truly the servant of a dictator” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 153).
As I wrote above, even Paul admitted to combatting sin in his life and I’m sure he wasn’t always successful. Then, referring to the “repentance which merits forgiveness,” Kimball said the “former transgressor must have reached a ‘point of no return’ to sin wherein there is not merely a renunciation but also a deep abhorrence of the sin—where the sin becomes most distasteful to him and where the desire or urge to sin is cleared out of his life.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 355).
“Feeling” that we are forgiven—based on emotions that change day to day—and “knowing” that we are forgiven are two separate things. First John 5:13 says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of Godso that you may know that you have eternal life.” Knowing here refers to “certainty” and not just a “feeling” that fleets with life’s trials and tribulations. While it is possible to feel pretty good about successfully claiming victory over individual sin, the chances are those temptations will creep back in sooner than later. As Kimball suggests, giving in to sin slides a person toward the bottom once more. What a hopeless and vicious circle.
There is no good news in Mormonism’s view of repentance. If true, if just means each of us have not yet arrived. However, Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21) based on His work, not ours. According to the plethora of verses supplied by Garner, repentance is powerless unless the second clause (ceasing sin) in each verse is fulfilled as well. Therefore, it’s impossible to know whether or not one is forgiven. I would hope this Ensign article stirs more angst than peace in the honest Latter-day Saint’s heart.