Is Repentance a Checklist?
So, you know you have sinned, and you feel bad. You want to repent.(see 1) You have confessed to the Lord, but maybe you can't make restitution, or maybe you want to forsake your sins and keep the commandments, but you keep messing up. Perhaps you worry that people who sin after repenting must not have repented or cannot be forgiven.(see 2)
You may wonder, will the Lord forgive me only after I finally stop sinning? How long must I be clean or sober? One year? Ten? Until death? What if I fell off the wagon after a record length? Would all my former sins return, sending me back to the beginning? Can I ever be forgiven? Or have I sinned too severely, too intensely, or too frequently?
What do the scriptures say?The scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman taken in the very act of adultery. The law of Moses commanded that adulterers should be stoned, but Jesus (God himself) refused to condemn her. He merely entreated her to "sin no more."(see 3) The Bible does not say how many times the woman had previously sinned or whether she ever sinned again.
Jesus once told a story of a sinner beating on his chest and begging God for mercy. Nearby stood another man believing himself to be righteous and judging himself to be better than the first. Jesus approved of the sinner!(see 4)
Two thieves were crucified with Jesus.5 Before he died, one thief bore witness of Christ's divinity. Jesus promised that thief an immediate place in paradise.(see 6) It's unclear whether he stopped briefly in hell first, or if he still needed to replace the stolen property.
After the prodigal son wasted his inheritance and finally returned to his father, how many years of service did the angry father require from him before he accepted the wayward boy as his son? How much of the squandered money was the boy required to repay?(see 7)
King Benjamin invited his people to repent, and every one of them received immediate forgiveness when they humbly declared their faith in Jesus and pleaded for mercy!(see 8) The King's sermon allowed very little time for his subjects to work through a lengthy repentance process.
On Sheep and WolvesAs a sinner, would you consider yourself a "lost sheep" or a "ravening wolf"?(see 9) Do you break the commandments despite your desires to do good and to follow God, because you have lost your way, and you cannot seem to find it? Or do you willfully rebel against God and against righteousness, refusing to know God, and trying to mislead and destroy the Lord's sheep? Do you want to be on God's "team," serving His people, if only you knew how? Or do you love your selfish pleasures enough to intentionally injure others?
Lost sheep should not be too hard on themselves.
When the good shepherd found his lost sheep, how angry was he at the sheep for wandering away? What was the sheep's punishment? How long did the lost sheep feel bad for all the trouble he had caused? Do you think the shepherd would have guilted the sheep for his past wandering, if the sheep had wandered away again, and again, and again?(see 10)
Consider that it really didn't take much for Enos, a possible lost sheep, to receive forgiveness of his sins (and to hear the voice of God!). His faith in Jesus was sufficient for forgiveness after little more than a genuine, heartfelt prayer.(see 11)
Even ravening wolves are forgiven through faith in Christ.
The younger Alma was arguably a "ravening wolf," leading away God's children as a false prophet does.(see 12) Still, his forgiveness came without a year of clean living and before his restitution. He felt healing forgiveness and exquisite joy after he deeply regretted his sins, turned to God with sincere faith in Jesus, and pleaded for mercy.(see 13) Another "wolf," Zeezrom, similarly received miraculous healing and forgiveness (in connection with baptism) almost as soon as he believed "in the power of Christ unto salvation."(see 14)
Repentance is Returning to GodThe English word "repent" comes from a Latin word that simply meant "to strongly regret." The Biblical Hebrew and Greek words most commonly translated as "repent" mean "to be sorry," "to console or comfort yourself," "to feel regret or guilt," or "to reconsider." One Hebrew word sometimes translated as "repent" means "to turn back," as in "return to God." Thus, the sinner who humbly turns to God in sorrow over his poor choices (like the prodigal son) has met the literal definition of "repentance."
Those with faith in Jesus will not be judged based on their works; the judgment will be all about Christ. If repentance required a checklist of works and commandment-keeping, then the judgment would be about works, and we would all fail. Repentance and salvation would be impossible. Temple work for the dead would be pointless, because the dead cannot complete the entire checklist. None of us can.
Forgiveness and salvation are gifts of love that our Father gives us, if we desire them. God does not owe us forgiveness because we have completed all the steps of repentance. We cannot earn salvation. Faith in Christ is enough, because Jesus is enough.
Repentance and Forgiveness Lead to Good WorksI'm not ignoring the arguments that true faith is a principle of action,(see 15) that true faith, coupled with sincere repentance, will almost always lead to changes in a person's habits, and that "faith without works is dead."16 These are all true principles! In each of the examples I previously gave, we may assume that the faith of the sinners (and the forgiveness from God) probably led them to try harder to keep the commandments. But good works were not a requirement of repentance or forgiveness.
Again, I acknowledge that good works typically follow true faith and sincere repentance. Importantly, good works bless and prosper mankind, and they bring glory to God. If one exists who can truly turn away from all sin and humbly keep all the commandments, that person surely has the faith to be saved! (And His name is Jesus Christ.)
But, thankfully for the rest of us, God's gifts of forgiveness and salvation are not just for the one who keeps all the commandments. They are also for everyone who desires and seeks to keep the commandments.(see 17, 18) Keeping the commandments of Jesus (to love God and to love and forgive others) becomes easier after we feel God's loving forgiveness for us, which He freely gives us as we humbly and willingly return to Him in faith.
How to Judge SinnersThe elder Alma wondered how the church should judge sinners. God instructed him to receive all those who hear the Lord's voice and believe in His name. God declared he will "freely forgive" such believers and grant unto them "a place eternally at [His] right hand," if they believe "unto the end" and come to know God. The Lord also commanded Alma and the church to forgive those who confess and repent "in the sincerity of [their] heart." Notably, He did not prescribe any steps for this "sincere repentance," but He made one thing beautifully clear: "as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me."(see 19)
One of the most often quoted scriptures about repentance is D&C 58:42-43:
Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them. (emphasis added)
These verses do not give us the right to point at others and declare that they have not repented or that they are not forgiven, even when we notice that they continue to sin. The scriptures are clear that we must not judge others, and we must forgive "all men."(see 20) "All men" includes women, children, those who repent, those who don't repent, our friends, our enemies, and even ourselves.
Note: Church leaders have full authority to discipline church members and to set guidelines for continuing fellowship in, or excommunication from, the Church. For these purposes, they must judge sinners based on confessing and forsaking, as set forth in scripture, because they have no other means to judge.
However, forgiveness and salvation are ultimately between the sinner and God alone, and
God is Merciful and Quick to Forgive
I, the Lord, forgive sins unto those who confess their sins before me and ask forgiveness. — D&C 64:7My dear friend, receive forgiveness and work out your own salvation(see 21, 22, 23) in this manner: Believe that Jesus is powerful enough to save even you. Humbly ask God to forgive you. Thank Him for His mercy and forgiveness. Sincerely return to God in this manner as often as you sin, believing in Jesus until the end of your life. Keep on trying to know God. Let perfection come later.