The Meaning of Repentance


The most basic principles of the gospel are sometimes those least understood. One of the most fundamental gospel principles is repentance.

Repentance is necessary for personal growth and development. The principle is so basic to the gospel that the Lord stresses its importance again and again throughout the scriptures. For example, in the Doctrine and Covenants, as mission calls were given to the early Saints, the Lord often repeated the admonition:

“And now, behold, I say unto you, that the thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the kingdom of my Father.” (See D&C 15:6; D&C 16:6; italics added.)

These revelations were not only intended for those to whom they were given, but also for us. They help us understand that what is of greatest worth to us is to declare repentance to others and to practice it ourselves.

Turn Back to Our Father

Just what is repentance? Actually, in some ways it is easier to understand what repentance is not than to understand what it is.

As a General Authority, I have prepared information for the First Presidency to use in considering applications to readmit repentant transgressors into the Church and to restore priesthood and temple blessings. Many times, a bishop will write, “I feel he has suffered enough!” But suffering is not repentance. Suffering comes from the lack of complete repentance. A stake president will write, “I feel he has been punished enough!” But punishment is not repentance. Punishment follows disobedience and precedes repentance. A husband will write, “My wife has confessed everything!” But confession is not repentance. Confession is an admission of guilt that occurs as repentance begins. A wife will write, “My husband is filled with remorse!” But remorse is not repentance. Remorse and sorrow continue because a person has not yet fully repented. Suffering, punishment, confession, remorse, and sorrow may sometimes accompany repentance, but they are not repentance. What, then, is repentance?

To find the answer to this question, we must go to the Old Testament. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and the word used in it to refer to the concept of repentance is shub. Shub means “to turn from.”

The message of the Old Testament is to shub, or to turn from transgression and back to our loving Father in Heaven—to leave unhappiness, sorrow, regret, and despair behind and turn back to our Father’s family. There we can find happiness, joy, and acceptance among his other children.

Prophet after prophet writes of shub to let us know that if we are truly repentant and forsake sin, we can be received with joy and rejoicing. The Old Testament teaches repeatedly we must turn from evil and do instead that which is noble and good. This means that we must not only change our ways, we must change our very thoughts, which control our actions.

The concept of shub is also found in the New Testament, which was written in Greek. The Greek writers used the Greek word metanoeo to refer to repentance. Metanoeo means a change of mind, thought, or thinking so powerful that it changes one’s very way of life. I think the Greek word metanoeo is an excellent synonym for the Hebrew word shub. Both words mean thoroughly changing or turning from evil to God and righteousness.

Confusion came, however, when the New Testament was translated from Greek into Latin. Here an unfortunate choice was made in translation; the Greek word metanoeo was translated into the Latin word poenitere. This word is related to the words punish, penance, penitent, and repentance. The beautiful meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words was thus changed in Latin to a meaning that involved hurting, punishing, whipping, cutting, mutilating, disfiguring, starving, or even torturing! It is no small wonder, then, that people have come to fear and dread the word repentance, which they understand to mean repeated or unending punishment.

Escape Eternal Punishment

The meaning of repentance is not that people be punished, but rather that they change their lives so that God can help them escape eternal punishment and enter into his rest with joy and rejoicing. If we have this understanding, repentance will become a welcome and treasured word in our religious vocabulary instead of a word that creates anxiety and fear.

We can learn more about the meaning of repentance from the thirty-third chapter of Ezekiel, where we read, “If the wicked restore the pledge, give again that he had robbed, walk in the statutes of life, without committing iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die.” (Ezek. 33:15.)

Let us analyze these three steps of repentance. The first is commitment—to “restore the pledge.” This is the most difficult step in the repentance process. What does “restoring the pledge” mean?

To restore or renew a pledge means to renew one’s covenant with the Lord. We must forget all excuses and recognize fully, exactly, what we have done. We must not say, “If I hadn’t been so angry,” “If my parents had only been more strict,” “If my bishop had only been more understanding,” “If my teachers had only taught me better,” “If it hadn’t been so dark!” There are hundreds of such excuses—none of which matters much in the end.

Commit Ourselves Completely

To truly repent, we must forget all such rationalizations. We must kneel down before God and openly and honestly admit that what we did was wrong. As we do so, we open our hearts to our Heavenly Father and commit ourselves completely to him.

To really commit oneself to God and to changing one’s life—and to mean it—is the beginning of repentance. Our Savior’s great commitment to his Father is exemplified best by his terrible trial in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he suffered in agony of spirit and shed great drops of blood.

Before this experience, he had always freely communicated with his Heavenly Father. But now he was left alone to carry the burden of the world’s sins. It was as if the heavens over his head closed and God did not hear him.

As he struggled in prayer and suffered horribly under the strain, he asked that the cup might pass and that some other path might be found. It is true that he added the words, “Thy will be done,” but there was no answer to his request, and his soul continued to be filled with anguish.

Three times he pleaded for release, and all three times there was no response. (See Matt. 26:36–44.)

Yet Christ had fully committed himself to do what he had been appointed to do. He was willing, and he went forward! Though he suffered tremendously, he had made up his mind and committed himself to be obedient in every particular, despite the cost.

Stating the Law

Our struggles to repent may also cost us agony of mind and body, but our commitment to our Heavenly Father to do his will will make repentance possible and bearable for us. In our repentance, we should remember that the Lord does not punish us for our sins; he simply withholds his blessings. We punish ourselves. The scriptures tell us again and again that the wicked are punished by the wicked. A simple illustration can show how we do this.

Suppose my mother told me not to touch a hot stove because it would burn me. She would only be stating the law. Suppose I should forget or deliberately touch that hot stove. I would be burned. I could cry and complain of my hurt, but who would be responsible for the hurt I received? Not my mother. Certainly not the hot stove! I would be responsible. I would have punished myself.

This illustration, however, disregards the important element of mercy, which I will try to make clear in discussing a second step in the process of repentance—restitution, or to “give again that [which we have] robbed.” (Ezek. 33:15.) If you have stolen money or goods, you can repay them—even sizable amounts, in time. But what if you have robbed yourself of virtue? Is there anything you can do, of yourself, to restore your virtue? Even if you gave your very life, you could not restore your virtue. But does that mean that it is useless to attempt restitution by performing significant good works? Or does that mean that your sin is unforgivable? No!

Jesus Christ has paid for your sin and has thus satisfied justice. Therefore, he will extend mercy to you—if you repent. True repentance on your part, including a change in your life-style, enables Christ, in mercy, to forgive your sin.

The more serious the sin, the greater the effort it takes to repent. But if we work daily at turning completely to the Lord, we can stand blameless before the Savior. The key is to allow the Lord to complete the healing process without reopening the wound. Just as it takes time for a wound of the body to heal, so it takes time for a wound of the soul to heal.

If I cut myself, for example, the wound will gradually heal. But as it heals, it may begin to itch, and if I scratch it, it may open up again and take longer to heal. But there is a greater danger. If I scratch the wound, it may become infected from germs on my fingers. I may poison the wound and lose that part of my body or even my life!

We must allow physical injuries to heal. If they are serious, we must see a doctor for skilled help. So it is with injuries to the soul. Allow the injury to heal without “scratching” it through vain regrets. If the transgression requires ecclesiastical confession, go to your bishop and get spiritual help. It may hurt as he disinfects the wound and sews it back together, but it will heal properly that way.

Positive, Righteous Thoughts

As you undergo the process of repentance, be patient. Be active with positive, righteous thoughts and deeds so that you can become happy and productive again.

As long as we turn our thoughts to sin or evil and refuse to forgive ourselves, we will likely return again to our sins. But if we turn from our problems and sins and put them behind us in both thought and action, we can concentrate on good and positive things. As we become fully involved in good causes, sin will no longer be such a great temptation for us.

Now we come to a third step of repentance—forsaking sin, or striving to “walk in the statutes of life, without committing iniquity.” (Ezek. 33:15.) We must forsake our sins, one by one. If we do this, the Lord has promised: “None [not even one] of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him: he hath done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live.” (Ezek. 33:16.)

In our day, the Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.”

How do we know if a man or a woman has repented of his or her sins? The Lord answers that question in the next verse: “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.” (D&C 58:42–43.)

Naturally, the confession that precedes repentance for serious sins should be made to a bishop or stake president who has the authority to hear such confession. Forgiveness must be sought from others affected by the sin. However, public confessions of guilt and public pleas for forgiveness should not be made unless a public sin was committed. Repenting of serious sins takes time and effort. Whether the sin is small or great, the final step of repentance—forsaking sin and turning back to our Heavenly Father—means that we do not repeat that transgression.

How grateful we should be for a kind, wise, loving Savior who will help us overcome our faults, our mistakes, and our sins. He loves and understands us and is sympathetic to the fact that we face temptations.

In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin explains one way we can show our gratitude to the Lord for his great mercy and his sacrifice for our sins: “Behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom: that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” (Mosiah 2:17.) God’s work and glory is to redeem his children. If we participate in redemptive service to others, we can, in some small measure, repay him for his blessings.

God is merciful; he has provided a way for us to repent and thus escape the bondage of pain, sorrow, suffering, and despair that comes from disobedience. As the sons and daughters of God, we need to understand the true meaning of repentance, we need to know that it is a beautiful word and a marvelous refuge.

[illustration] Illustrated by Greg Olsen