During the time of our Savior’s mortal ministry, many followed after Him, including scribes and Pharisees “out of every town of Galilee, … Judaea, and Jerusalem.”1 A bedridden, paralyzed man desiring to be healed was brought to a large gathering, but unable to get him close to the Savior, his friends took him to the roof of the house where the Savior was and lowered him down. Seeing this demonstration of faith, with a great purpose not yet known to His listeners, the Savior declared, “Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.”2
This must have surprised the man, and although the scriptures say nothing of his reaction, he may have wondered if the Savior really understood why he had come.
The Savior knew that many people followed Him because of His mighty miracles. Already He had turned water to wine,3 cast out unclean spirits,4 and healed the nobleman’s son,5 a leper,6 Peter’s mother-in-law,7 and many others.8
But with this paralyzed man, the Lord chose to give evidence to both disciple and detractor of His unique role as Savior of the world. Hearing the Savior’s words, the scribes and Pharisees had begun to reason among themselves, ignorantly speaking of blasphemy while concluding that only God can forgive sin. Perceiving their thoughts, the Savior addressed them, saying:
“What reason ye in your hearts?
“Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Rise up and walk?”9
Not waiting for their response, the Savior continued, “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, [He then turned to the paralyzed man] I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house.”10 And he did!
By this miraculous physical healing, the Savior confirmed to all of us this infinitely more powerful spiritual truth: the Son of Man forgives sins!
While this truth is readily accepted by all believers, not so easily acknowledged is the essential companion truth: the Savior forgives sins “upon earth” and not just at the Final Judgment. He does not excuse us in our sins.11 He does not condone our return to past sins.12 But when we repent and obey His gospel, He forgives us.13
In this forgiveness we see the enabling and the redeeming power of the Atonement harmoniously and graciously applied. If we exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the enabling power of His Atonement strengthens us in our moment of need,14 and His redeeming power sanctifies us as we “[put] off the natural man.”15 This brings hope to all, especially to those who feel that recurring human weakness is beyond the Savior’s willingness to help and to save.
Providing an opportunity for the Savior to enlighten our understanding,16 Peter once inquired how many times he should forgive his brother and then asked, “Till seven times?” Surely that would be more than enough. But the Savior’s response opened wide the door to His merciful heart: “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”17
The Lord loves us and wants us to understand His willingness to forgive. On more than 20 occasions in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord told those to whom He was speaking, “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” or similar words.18 On about half of those occasions, the Lord’s words were directed specifically to the Prophet Joseph Smith, sometimes addressing him alone, sometimes with others.19 The first of these was recorded in 1830, the last in 1843. Thus, over a span of many years, the Lord told Joseph repeatedly, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.”
While Joseph was not “guilty of any great or malignant sins,”20 we do well to remember that with very few exceptions, the Lord’s “seventy times seven” does not limit forgiveness according to the seriousness of the sin.
While speaking to elders assembled in Kirtland, the Lord said, “I will that ye should overcome the world; wherefore I will have compassion upon you.”21 The Lord knows our weakness and the eternal consequences of “the world” upon imperfect men and women.22 The word wherefore in this verse is His affirmation that it is only by virtue of His compassion that we may ultimately “overcome the world.” How is that compassion made manifest? To these same elders in Kirtland, He said, “I have forgiven you your sins.”23 The Savior wants to forgive.
No one need suppose that this forgiveness comes without repentance. Indeed, the Lord has declared, “I, the Lord, forgive sins unto those who confess their sins before me and ask forgiveness,” and then He adds the cautionary qualifier “who have not sinned unto death.”24 While the Lord “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,”25 yet He differentiates the relative gravity of some sins. He stipulates there will be no forgiveness for “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.”26 He declares the gravity of murder27 and emphasizes the seriousness of sexual sin such as adultery.28 With regard to repeated serious sexual sin, He makes known the increased difficulty of receiving His forgiveness.29 And He has said that “he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation.”30 Yet, in His mercy, He allows for improvement over time rather than demanding immediate perfection. Even with the multitude of sins occasioned by the weakness of mortality, as often as we repent and seek His forgiveness, He forgives again and again.31
Because of this, all of us, including those struggling to overcome addictive behaviors such as substance abuse or pornography and those close to them, can know that the Lord will recognize our righteous efforts and will lovingly forgive when repentance is complete, “until seventy times seven.” But this does not mean one may willingly return to sin with impunity.32
The Lord is always interested in our hearts,33 and rationalized false faith does not justify sin.34 In this dispensation the Lord warned one of His servants against such rationalization by declaring, “Let [him] be ashamed of the Nicolaitane band and of all their secret abominations.”35 The Nicolaitans were an ancient religious sect that claimed license to commit sexual sin by virtue of the Lord’s grace.36 This is not pleasing to the Lord.37 His compassion and grace do not excuse us when “[our] hearts are not satisfied. And [we] obey not the truth, but have pleasure in unrighteousness.”38 Rather, after we do all we can do,39 His compassion and grace are the means whereby “in process of time”40 we overcome the world through the enabling power of the Atonement. As we humbly seek this precious gift, “weak things become strong unto [us],”41 and by His strength, we are made able to do that which we could never do alone.
The Lord looks upon the light we have received,42 the desires of our hearts,43 and our actions,44 and when we repent and seek His forgiveness, He forgives. As we consider our own lives and the lives of our loved ones and acquaintances, we should be equally willing to forgive ourselves and others.45
Preach My Gospel speaks of the difficulty in overcoming addictive behavior and encourages priesthood leaders and members to “not be shocked or discouraged” if investigators or new members continue to struggle with such problems. Rather, we are counseled to “show confidence in the individual and not be judgmental … [treating] it as a temporary and understandable setback.”46 Could we do less with our own children or family members who struggle with similar problems, having temporarily strayed from the path of righteousness? Surely they merit our steadiness, patience, and love—and yes, our forgiveness.
In general conference just last October, President Monson counseled:
“We need to bear in mind that people can change. They can put behind them bad habits. They can repent from transgressions. …
“… We can help them to overcome their shortcomings. We must develop the capacity to see men not as they are at present but as they may become.”47
At an early conference of the Church, similar to this conference, the Lord told the members:
“Verily I say unto you, ye are clean, but not all; …
“For all flesh is corrupted before me. …
“… For verily some of you are guilty before me, but I will be merciful unto your weakness.”48
His message is the same today.
Our Heavenly Father knows what we are facing, that we all sin and “come short of the glory of God”49 again and again. He sent His Son, who “knoweth the weakness of man and how to succor them who are tempted.”50 His Son teaches us to “pray always that [we] enter not into temptation.”51 We are told to “cry unto [God] for mercy; for he is mighty to save.”52 The Savior commands us to repent53 and to forgive.54 And although repentance is not easy, as we strive with all our hearts to obey His gospel, He gives this promise: “Verily I say unto you, notwithstanding [your] sins, my bowels are filled with compassion towards [you]. I will not utterly cast [you] off; and in the day of wrath I will remember mercy.”55 The Savior wants to forgive.
Each week the Mormon Tabernacle Choir begins its inspiring broadcast with the uplifting words of William W. Phelps’s familiar hymn “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain.” Not as familiar are the comforting words of the fourth verse:
Holy, holy is the Lord.
Precious, precious is his word: …
Repent and live;
Tho your sins be crimson red,
Oh, repent, and he’ll forgive.56
I invite you to remember and believe the words of the Lord and to exercise faith in Him unto repentance.57 He loves you. He wants to forgive. I so testify in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.