Throughout my years of membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have participated in many lessons dealing with the topic of repentance. Invariably, someone will mention that for true repentance to occur, an individual must go through a checklist of words that start with the letter R and do everything on that list.
The lists vary, but generally the lists include 5 to 10 “R” words, which almost always include, recognition, remorse, restitution, reformation, and resolution.
Given that most members of the church can quickly call to mind and remember these steps of repentance, it is curious that the doctrine of repentance is still so hard to understand for many of us.
As a branch president of newly formed Spanish branch, I occasionally dealt with members or investigators who quickly embraced the doctrine of repentance and changed their lives for the better. One investigator I’ll call José drank to excess before listening to the missionaries. The first time the missionaries contacted José, he was very drunk, and had been drinking all weekend long. Despite many years of violating the Word of Wisdom, this good man stopped drinking in less than a month and was baptized 5 weeks after meeting the missionaries.
It has been nearly ten years since José’s baptism, and this brother continues to be faithful. He has served as a ward mission leader, a counselor in a branch presidency, as an Elder’s quorum president, and a counselor in a bishopric. Something in this brother allowed him to understand the repentance process and change his life for good.
For others of us, repentance is far more difficult. Attitudes, habits, and addictions can get in the way of true repentance. We may abstain from sin for a time, only to return to it in shame. We may not understand how the Savior’s atonement could possibly apply to us and never fully forgive ourselves. We may justify our sins or compare our progress in the process of repentance with that of our imperfect brothers and sisters.
Another branch member I’ll call Pedro would come into my office every three months or so, often at the instigation of his wife, and confess that he had fallen off the wagon, usually in a spectacular manner. Pedro would be outwardly contrite for a few weeks, but after a month or so would stop attending church, begin hanging out with his old friends, and two months later be back in my office confessing once more.
Perhaps the reason that repentance is hard for so many of us is because we fail to recognize the two most important Rs of Repentance – the Redeemer and Righteousness. Without a clear understanding of the central role of Jesus Christ’s atonement in helping us become righteous, we can never truly repent.
Of all the principles and ordinances of the gospel, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the most important. If we don’t have faith in the Redeemer of Israel, we can’t repent. We must have faith that “[w]e are saved only through the merits, the mercy, and the grace of the Holy One of Israel (see 2 Ne. 2:8). He is our only hope” (Elder Jay Jensen, Do You Know How To Repent?). We must experiment on his words, nourishing our faith, through prayer, fasting, and scripture study.
If we do our part, the Redeemer will help us obtain righteousness, the true sign of repentance. “It is through our faith in Him that we develop the desire and the ability to be righteous. Righteousness, then, is the very process by which we obtain a remission of sins through our Redeemer” (Lawrence R. Flake, Beyond “Recipe Repentance” and “Formula Forgiveness”).
Every scriptural example of true repentance involves an experience where a sinner demonstrated their faith in the Redeemer, and then followed up that faith with subsequent sustained righteousness. Alma’s momentary yet momentous epiphany that Jesus Christ could rescue him from endless torment led to enduring uprightness as a lifelong missionary.
Saul’s brief vision led to years of abiding change and apostolic ministry. While not all of us will have the global impact of an Alma or a Paul, a truly repentant sinner will use the redemptive power of the atonement to bring about continuous acts of righteousness.
All of us can bring about much good, but the acts of righteousness that are common to the truly penitent usually involve yielding our will to God and serving our fellow men.
A final example of a branch member that truly understood repentance was a brother I’ll call Antonio. Prior to Antonio’s conversion, he drank and smoked, was immoral, and was an atheist. He sincerely repented of his sins after listening to the missionaries talk about Jesus Christ. Antonio’s life profoundly changed after his baptism. He dedicated his life to the Lord, constantly preaching the gospel throughout his life. He started a non-profit organization, which he ran for over 40 years. He served as a bishop several times, in stake presidencies, mission presidencies, and served four missions with his wife. Hundreds of lives were touched because of this Antonio’s testimony of the Redeemer, and many people joined the church through his righteous efforts.
It is important to follow all the steps of repentance. Recognition, remorse, restitution, reformation, and resolution are key aspects of true repentance; however, we all need to learn from the examples of José and Antonio and avoid the behavior of Pedro. We should remember that the two most important Rs of repentance: We must have faith in the Redeemer and use the enabling power of the atonement to continuously bring about works of righteousness.
Without our Redeemer, we can’t be righteous, and without our Redeemer, we can’t repent.