In his beautiful devotional hymn, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” the twelfth century Cistercian saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote:
(Hymns, 1985, no. 141.)
A number of years ago I was ordained a bishop and set apart to preside over a campus ward. As I was endowed with the powers and keys that pertained to that function, I was given the responsibilities of a common judge in Israel. From the very beginning this was the part of the calling that I faced with the greatest apprehension, but I soon learned it was also the area in which I could provide the greatest service.
As a judge, I was responsible to hear confessions of ward members who had transgressed to such a degree that their membership in or fellowship with the Church might be brought into question. This happened, I am sorry to say, far too frequently. One of my friends asked me at that time if the students had lots of problems. I replied, halfway truthfully, that they had only a few problems—over and over. But it was precisely this “over and over” that troubled me, because not only did many ward members suffer from serious transgression, but certain of them repeated the same transgression even after coming to their bishop to try to get things straightened out.
At first this fact astonished me. These students would gather up the courage to come to me and admit that they had committed acts of transgression. And I think that they were sincere in their desire to change their lives. Some of them were racked with pain and misery, and it was rare that tears were not shed by the time our interview had ended. But all too often, sometimes even within a day or two, they were back in even greater anguish to confess that they had repeated their sin.
As we would discuss the principle of repentance, I found that they were generally quite knowledgeable. Many of them could repeat lists of steps (often with a series of words beginning with the letter R), and many of them put a good deal of emphasis on forgiving themselves. But clearly something was lacking, for their sorrow, though genuine, did not lead to change. It was, as Paul put it, “the sorrow of the world [that] worketh death.” What they needed was “godly sorrow [that] worketh repentance to salvation.” (2 Cor. 7:10.)
It was in a simple context—that of reviewing the Articles of Faith with a new member of the Church—that I finally discovered the error in my counseling. I found that I had been dealing with the second principle of the gospel before treating the first. That is, I had placed repentance before faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This may not seem to be a dramatic insight, but it was for me and for my ward members whom I counseled. For we rediscovered the fact that repentance is a dead and useless principle unless it is preceded by faith in Jesus Christ. The reason behind this statement is very clear: because of our imperfections, we are incapable of paying the debt of sin. Thus, without the grace and mercy of Christ, that debt cannot be paid.
When we will recognize the fact that Christ has paid for our transgressions, we begin to acquire faith that the Lord will give us the strength to truly change our lives. This faith gives us the power to change, because we feel confident that if we put Christ’s teachings to work in our lives, he will purge us of the effects of sin. As a consequence, this faith in the Lord and his mercy gives us the enduring power to continually seek righteousness.
Alma the Younger, who knew the torment that one suffers through rejecting his Redeemer, described the Lord’s mercy:
“And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
“Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance.” (Alma 7:12–13.)
We find an example of a people moved to repentance by faith in Christ in the people of King Benjamin. Having viewed their own carnal state, they cried aloud together: “O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth and all things.” (Mosiah 4:2.)
Thereafter, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins” (Mosiah 4:3) and testified that the Spirit had “wrought a mighty change” in them, that they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2.)
What I and my ward members had failed to do was to cry that the Lord would “have mercy and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we might receive forgiveness of our sins.” Instead, we had suffered the sorrow of the world that leads only to death.
When we realize that Jesus has paid the price of sin, he becomes the hope of our hearts. More than this, we also become aware that he is kind to those who fall. I believe that our awareness of this kindness is essential. Too often, in well-meaning attempts at encouraging obedience, we stress the punishment that will eventually come to sinners, and we understate the extent of Christ’s mercy.
I can remember hearing a friend once complain bitterly that a Church court had given “too easy” a judgment in the case of a person who had transgressed. This friend, I believe, had been seduced into believing that wickedness really is quite pleasant, and he seemed angry that someone got to do something that he couldn’t do and had not been punished more overtly. He had forgotten that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10) and that the very act of transgression is an act of suffering, pain, and sorrow. God did not provide for the Atonement to bring sorrow, but rather joy. “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:17.)
I do not wish to imply that placing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ before repentance solves all problems or ends all temptation. We are all aware that the fervent prayer of some of our greatest Saints in their last years has been for strength to endure to the end. But this faith in Christ—that he is God’s only begotten Son in the flesh, that in Gethsemane and upon Golgotha he took upon himself our sins, that he was resurrected from the dead and brought about the resurrection of all who die; that he appeared in our day to reestablish the authority to administer his saving ordinances; and that faith in him and his gospel can bestow upon us the actual power to change our lives—this faith is the beginning of hope for all who recognize that they are tasting the gall of bitterness and are bound by the bands of iniquity.
Indeed, to those sorrowing in sin, the very thought of our Savior brings hope, joy, and the power to repent.