In his first general conference address as President of the Church, President Ezra Taft Benson stated: “As I have sought direction from the Lord, I have had reaffirmed in my mind and heart the declaration of the Lord to ‘say nothing but repentance unto this generation.’ (D&C 6:9; 11:9.) This has been a theme of every latter-day prophet.”1
Even before his call as President of the Church, President Benson made repentance an important theme of his ministry. He had been counseled to do so by George Albert Smith, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the time. In a letter written not long after President Benson’s call to the apostleship, President Smith said, “Your mission from now on is to find ways and means to disseminate the truth and warn the people that you come in contact with in as kind a way as possible that repentance will be the only panacea for the ills of this world.”2
President Benson was faithful to this charge as he taught the gospel throughout the world. He taught that “it is better to prepare and prevent than it is to repair and repent.”3 But he also observed that “we all have need to repent.”4 He emphasized the “mighty change” of heart associated with repentance (see Alma 5:12–14) and explained the Savior’s role in bringing about such change:
“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature. …
“Yes, Christ changes men, and changed men can change the world.”5
In the usual sense of the term, Church membership means that a person has his or her name officially recorded on the membership records of the Church. …
But the Lord defines a member of His kingdom in quite a different way. In 1828, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, He said, “Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.” (D&C 10:67; italics added.) To Him whose Church this is, membership involves far more than simply being a member of record.
I would therefore like to set forth important concepts that we must understand and apply if we are to truly repent and come unto the Lord.
One of Satan’s most frequently used deceptions is the notion that the commandments of God are meant to restrict freedom and limit happiness. Young people especially sometimes feel that the standards of the Lord are like fences and chains, blocking them from those activities that seem most enjoyable in life. But exactly the opposite is true. The gospel plan is the plan by which men are brought to a fulness of joy. This is the first concept I wish to stress. The gospel principles are the steps and guidelines that will help us find true happiness and joy.
The understanding of this concept caused the Psalmist to exclaim, “O how love I thy law! … Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies. … Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. … Thy testimonies have I taken as an heritage for ever: for they are the rejoicing of my heart.” (Ps. 119:97–98, 105, 111.)
If we wish to truly repent and come unto Him so that we can be called members of His Church, we must first and foremost come to realize this eternal truth—the gospel plan is the plan of happiness. Wickedness never did, never does, never will bring us happiness [see Alma 41:10]. Violation of the laws of God brings only misery, bondage, and darkness.6
A second concept that is important to our understanding is the relationship of repentance to the principle of faith. Repentance is the second fundamental principle of the gospel. The first is that we must have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Why is this so? Why must faith in the Lord precede true repentance?
To answer this question, we must understand something about the atoning sacrifice of the Master. Lehi taught that “no flesh … can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.” (2 Ne. 2:8.) Even the most just and upright man cannot save himself solely on his own merits, for, as the Apostle Paul tells us, “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23.)
If it were not for the perfect, sinless life of the Savior, which He willingly laid down for us, there could be no remission of sins.
Therefore, repentance means more than simply a reformation of behavior. Many men and women in the world demonstrate great willpower and self-discipline in overcoming bad habits and the weaknesses of the flesh. Yet at the same time they give no thought to the Master, sometimes even openly rejecting Him. Such changes of behavior, even if in a positive direction, do not constitute true repentance.
Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which sincere and meaningful repentance must be built. If we truly seek to put away sin, we must first look to Him who is the Author of our salvation.7
The third important principle for us to understand if we would be true members of the Church is that repentance involves not just a change of actions, but a change of heart.
When King Benjamin finished his remarkable address in the land of Zarahemla, the people all cried with one voice that they believed his words. They knew of a surety that his promises of redemption were true, because, said they, “the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent … has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, [and note this] that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2.)8
Can human hearts be changed? Why, of course! It happens every day in the great missionary work of the Church. It is one of the most widespread of Christ’s modern miracles. If it hasn’t happened to you—it should.
Our Lord told Nicodemus that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3.) …
Alma states: “And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters;
“And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.” (Mosiah 27:25–26.) …
The fourth chapter of Alma describes a period in Nephite history when “the church began to fail in its progress.” (Alma 4:10.) Alma met this challenge by resigning his seat as chief judge in government “and confined himself wholly to the high priesthood” responsibility which was his. (Alma 4:20.)
He bore down “in pure testimony” against the people (Alma 4:19), and in the fifth chapter of Alma he asks over forty crucial questions. Speaking frankly to the members of the Church, he declared, “I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:14.)
He continued, “If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:26.)
Would not the progress of the Church increase dramatically today with an increasing number of those who are spiritually reborn? Can you imagine what would happen in our homes? Can you imagine what would happen with an increasing number of copies of the Book of Mormon in the hands of an increasing number of missionaries who know how to use it and who have been born of God? When this happens, we will get the bounteous harvest of souls that the Lord promised. It was the “born of God” Alma who as a missionary was so able to impart the word that many others were also born of God. (See Alma 36:23–26.)9
When we have undergone this mighty change, which is brought about only through faith in Jesus Christ and through the operation of the Spirit upon us, it is as though we have become a new person. Thus, the change is likened to a new birth. Thousands of you have experienced this change. You have forsaken lives of sin, sometimes deep and offensive sin, and through applying the blood of Christ in your lives, have become clean. You have no more disposition to return to your old ways. You are in reality a new person. This is what is meant by a change of heart.10
The fourth concept I would like to stress is what the scriptures term “godly sorrow” for our sins. It is not uncommon to find men and women in the world who feel remorse for the things they do wrong. Sometimes this is because their actions cause them or loved ones great sorrow and misery. Sometimes their sorrow is caused because they are caught and punished for their actions. Such worldly feelings do not constitute “godly sorrow.”
… In the final days of the Nephite nation, Mormon said of his people: “their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin.
“And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die.” (Morm. 2:13–14.)
In the Eastern Hemisphere, the Apostle Paul labored among the people of Corinth. After reports came of serious problems among the Saints, including immorality (see 1 Cor. 5:1), Paul wrote a sharp letter of rebuke. The people responded in the proper spirit, and evidently the problems were corrected, for in his second epistle to them, Paul wrote: “Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner. …
“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Cor. 7:9–10.)
In both of these scriptures, godly sorrow is defined as a sorrow that leads us to repentance.
Godly sorrow is a gift of the Spirit. It is a deep realization that our actions have offended our Father and our God. It is the sharp and keen awareness that our behavior caused the Savior, He who knew no sin, even the greatest of all, to endure agony and suffering. Our sins caused Him to bleed at every pore. This very real mental and spiritual anguish is what the scriptures refer to as having “a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” (See 3 Ne. 9:20; Moro. 6:2; D&C 20:37; 59:8; Ps. 34:18; 51:17; Isa. 57:15.) Such a spirit is the absolute prerequisite for true repentance.11
The next principle I would like to discuss is this: No one is more anxious to see us change our lives than the Father and the Savior. In the book of Revelation is a powerful and profound invitation from the Savior. He says, “I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him.” (Rev. 3:20.) Note that He does not say, “I stand at the door and wait for you to knock.” He is calling, beckoning, asking that we simply open our hearts and let Him in.
In Moroni’s great sermon on faith, the principle is even more clearly taught. He was told by the Lord, “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men.” It matters not what is our lack or our weakness or our insufficiency. His gifts and powers are sufficient to overcome them all.
Moroni continues with the words of the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27; italics added.)
What a promise from the Lord! The very source of our troubles can be changed, molded, and formed into a strength and a source of power. This promise is repeated in one form or another in many other scriptures. Isaiah said, “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.” (Isa. 40:29.) Paul was told by the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9.) In the Doctrine and Covenants we read, “He that trembleth under my power shall be made strong, and shall bring forth fruits of praise and wisdom.” (D&C 52:17; see also 1 Ne. 17:3; 2 Ne. 3:13; D&C 1:28; 133:58–59.)12
One of Satan’s most effective strategies with those whom he has lured into sin is to whisper in their ears that they are not worthy to pray. He will tell you that Heavenly Father is so displeased with you that He will never hear your prayers. This is a lie, and he says it to deceive us. The power of sin is great. If we are to extricate ourselves from it, especially serious sin, we must have a power greater than ourselves.
No one is more anxious to help you flee from sin than your Heavenly Father. Go to Him. Acknowledge your sin, confess your shame and your guilt, and then plead with Him for help. He has the power to help you triumph.13
Brothers and sisters, we must take our sins to the Lord in humble and sorrowful repentance. We must plead with Him for power to overcome them. The promises are sure. He will come to our aid. We will find the power to change our lives.14
The sixth and final point I wish to make about the process of repentance is that we must be careful, as we seek to become more and more godlike, that we do not become discouraged and lose hope. Becoming Christlike is a lifetime pursuit and very often involves growth and change that is slow, almost imperceptible. The scriptures record remarkable accounts of men whose lives changed dramatically, in an instant, as it were: Alma the Younger, Paul on the road to Damascus, Enos praying far into the night, King Lamoni. Such astonishing examples of the power to change even those steeped in sin give confidence that the Atonement can reach even those deepest in despair.
But we must be cautious as we discuss these remarkable examples. Though they are real and powerful, they are the exception more than the rule. For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord, little realizing they are building a godlike life. They live quiet lives of goodness, service, and commitment. They are like the Lamanites, who the Lord said “were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.” (3 Ne. 9:20; italics added.)
We must not lose hope. Hope is an anchor to the souls of men. Satan would have us cast away that anchor. In this way he can bring discouragement and surrender. But we must not lose hope. The Lord is pleased with every effort, even the tiny, daily ones in which we strive to be more like Him. Though we may see that we have far to go on the road to perfection, we must not give up hope.15
For those who pay the price required by true repentance, the promise is sure. You can be clean again. The despair can be lifted. The sweet peace of forgiveness will flow into your lives.
The words of the Lord through Isaiah are sure: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18).
I hope we will not live in the past. People who live in the past don’t have very much future. There is a great tendency for us to lament about our losses, about decisions that we have made that we think in retrospect were probably wrong decisions. There is a great tendency for us to feel badly about the circumstances with which we are surrounded, thinking they might have been better had we made different decisions. We can profit by the experience of the past. But let us not spend our time worrying about decisions that have been made, mistakes that have been made. Let us live in the present and in the future.17
My beloved brothers and sisters, as we seek to qualify to be members of Christ’s Church—members in the sense in which He uses the term, members who have repented and come unto Him—let us remember these six principles. First, the gospel is the Lord’s plan of happiness, and repentance is designed to bring us joy. Second, true repentance is based on and flows from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other way. Third, true repentance involves a change of heart and not just a change of behavior. Fourth, part of this mighty change of heart is to feel godly sorrow for our sins. This is what is meant by a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Fifth, God’s gifts are sufficient to help us overcome every sin and weakness if we will but turn to Him for help. Finally, we must remember that most repentance does not involve sensational or dramatic changes, but rather is a step-by-step, steady, and consistent movement toward godliness.
If we will strive to incorporate these principles into our lives and implement them on a daily basis, we shall then qualify to be more than members of record in the Church of Jesus Christ. As true members, we have claim to His promise: “Whosoever is of my church, and endureth of my church to the end, him will I establish upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.” (D&C 10:69.)
My prayer is that we may all win that promise for ourselves.18
President Benson said that to truly repent, we must first realize that “the gospel plan is the plan of happiness” and that wickedness “never will bring us happiness” (section 1). Why do you think this understanding is essential in the repentance process?
In our efforts to repent, why is a change of behavior not enough? (See section 2.) Why do you think we need to look to Jesus Christ in order to truly repent?
In what ways have you experienced a “mighty change of heart,” as explained in section 3? What can we do to help others experience this change?
In what ways is “godly sorrow” different from the regret some people feel when they have done something wrong? (See section 4.) How might a parent or bishop use the teachings in section 4 to help someone who needs to repent?
As you review section 5, what teachings do you find particularly comforting? Why are these teachings comforting for you?
Testifying of the power of the Savior’s Atonement, President Benson said, “We must not lose hope” (section 6). As you review section 6, what truths about the Atonement do you find that offer you hope?
“Your main concern should be helping others learn the gospel, not making an impressive presentation. This includes providing opportunities for learners to teach one another” (Teaching, No Greater Call , 64).