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Repentance: Some Mormon Misunderstandings

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Repentance: Some Mormon Misunderstandings

Robert M. Bowman Jr.
“We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance…” (Article of Faith 4).
"Repentance is not a work program. It is . . . a change of heart that turns us toward God in order to receive his free acceptance and fatherly embrace."

There is no question about the fact that repentance is an essential aspect of the gospel—or more precisely of our response to the gospel. The Gospel of Mark summarizes Jesus’ message at the beginning of his ministry as “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15 NASB). Luke tells us that after Jesus’ resurrection, he charged his disciples to proclaim “repentance for forgiveness of sins…to all the nations” (Luke 24:47). Paul urged both Jews and Gentiles to respond to the gospel with “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Those who have not repented have not responded appropriately to the gospel. But what is repentance? In this article, we will examine what chapter 19 of the LDS manual Gospel Principles says about repentance and compare it with the teaching of the New Testament. I assume here without apology that the New Testament is a reliable guide to understanding repentance. This article explains the following crucial differences with regard to the meaning of repentance:

  1. Repentance is not about progressing toward exaltation in the highest level of salvation, but about escaping the judgment of God’s righteous wrath.
  2. The repentance of the Christian gospel is an aspect of a person’s initial, believing response to the gospel, not a lifelong process.
  3. Repentance is an admission of weakness that we cannot measure up to God’s standard, not an untiring and strong effort to do what we can to measure up to that standard.
  4. Good works are the fruit that demonstrate or manifest repentance, but they are not part of repentance.
  5. Repentance does not mean to stop sinning; if it did, we would have to conclude that no one fully repents and that no one is ever fully forgiven. Rather, repentance means accepting the free forgiveness of sins that comes from Jesus Christ.

We will discuss each of these points in turn.

1. Repentance is not about progressing toward exaltation in the highest level of salvation, but about escaping the judgment of God’s righteous wrath.

As explained in our response to chapter 18 of Gospel Principles, in LDS teaching faith in Christ is necessary, not for “salvation” in the general sense of immortal life in a heavenly kingdom, but only for “salvation” in the individual, highest sense of eternal life in the celestial kingdom with the potential for becoming gods. The same applies to repentance. The LDS position is that repentance is needed for making it into the celestial kingdom, for attaining exaltation and eventually godhood. Unfortunately, chapter 19 of Gospel Principles nowhere explains this basic element of the LDS doctrine of repentance. The connection to exaltation is not made explicit until near the end of the manual, in chapter 47:

“To be exalted, we first must place our faith in Jesus Christ and then endure in that faith to the end of our lives. Our faith in Him must be such that we repent of our sins and obey His commandments” (278).

In the New Testament, by contrast, repentance is a turning of the heart toward God to seek his mercy instead of the righteous wrath that we deserve because of our sin. John the Baptist made this point explicitly when he questioned the sincerity of some religious leaders who came to him for baptism: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” (Matthew 3:7 ESV). John’s baptism was an acknowledgment that God’s fiery judgment was coming (3:12) and that one’s only hope to escape that judgment was to throw oneself on his mercy. Likewise, Jesus taught that those who failed to repent were doomed to perish (Luke 13:3, 5). The apostle Peter years later posed the same two alternatives when he said that the Lord does not wish “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NASB). In Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man, who ended up in a place of agony and torment, was worried that his brothers would also end up there unless they repented (Luke 16:23-30). The apostle Paul warned those whose hearts were “unrepentant”: “you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5 NASB).

John the Baptist, Christ, and the apostles, then, all taught that repentance was necessary to avoid perishing in the terrifying wrath of God’s judgment. The LDS Church, on the other hand, teaches that people may refuse to repent and even reject Christ in this life and still make it into one of the lower heavenly kingdoms. In LDS theology, no one needs to repent to receive immortality in a glorious heavenly realm. Repentance is required only of those who would attain entrance into the highest of those heavenly realms and the possibility of becoming gods. The two doctrines, then, have radically different views of the need for repentance.

2. The repentance of the Christian gospel is an aspect of a person’s initial, believing response to the gospel, not a lifelong process.

If repentance is part of the path to exaltation and godhood, it makes sense to view repentance as a challenging activity or demanding process, and this is indeed what the LDS Church teaches. According to Gospel Principles, “We come to earth for the purpose of growing and progressing. This is a lifelong process” (107). It then explains repentance as a key aspect of this process. Whenever we commit sins, they “slow our spiritual progression and can even stop it,” and “repentance makes it possible for us to grow and develop spiritually again” (109). The Encyclopedia of Mormonism defines repentance as “the process by which humans set aside or overcome sins…. Since repentance is an ongoing process in the mortal effort to become Christlike, the need for it never diminishes” (3:1216, 1218). As Spencer W. Kimball put it, “Repentance is a lifelong task. Since all of us sin in greater or lesser degree, we are all in need of constant repentance, of continually raising our sights and our performance. One can hardly do the commandments of the Lord in a day, a week, a month, or a year. This is an effort which must be extended through the remainder of one's years” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 105). As we shall see, this is not what the New Testament means by repentance.

The noun “repentance” (metanoia) and the verb “to repent” (metanoein) in all their forms appear some 44 times in the New Testament. Since few if any words in the Bible function as formal or technical theological terms, we should not expect that the New Testament will use the “repentance” words with only one uniform meaning or usage. Somewhat surprisingly, though, these words do happen to have the same meaning almost everywhere they occur in the New Testament. That meaning is that repentance is the change of mind or heart toward sin that is part of a person’s proper initial response of faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We can see this usage right at the beginning of the events reported in the Gospels, specifically concerning the ministry of John the Baptist. He preached a “baptism of repentance” focused on believing in the one “who was coming after him, that is, Jesus,” as the one who was bringing people forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:6, 11; Mark 1:4, 7-8; Luke 3:3, 16; John 1:26-31; Acts 13:24; 19:4). John’s message, like that of Jesus himself, was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; “repent and believe the gospel” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15). Baptism, of course, was a single event, not an ongoing process or constantly repeated act; it was a rite of initiation that signaled repentance as a decisive change in one’s relationship to God.

It is easy, two thousand years later, to misread these texts as though they were speaking of a ministry to atheists or moral degenerates who needed to acknowledge God and clean up their act. John was speaking to Jews who for the most part devoutly believed in God and tried with varying degrees of effort to live a moral life. He was calling his fellow Israelites to a decisive change of attitude with regard to their own standing before God. Instead of thinking of themselves as morally superior to the pagan Greeks and Romans of the surrounding culture, John summoned them to present themselves humbly before God as no better than those unclean Gentiles. That was what baptism signified: Jews who submitted to baptism were admitting that they were unclean!

The rest of the New Testament almost uniformly speaks of repentance in the same context. Jesus and his disciples traveled around Galilee summoning people to repent (Mark 6:12; Luke 5:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30-31). After his resurrection, Jesus told his apostles “that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47 NASB). On just one occasion reported in the Gospels, Jesus spoke of “repenting” in another sense: that of expressing regret to another human being for a sin committed against that person. In that context, Jesus told his disciples to be willing to forgive others no matter how many times those others sin and then express such regret (Luke 17:3-4). Neither Jesus nor his apostles, however, ever spoke of people “repenting” over and over before God. In one sense, indeed, the New Testament rejects such an idea, as we shall see in a moment

Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles spoke of repentance as part of a person’s “conversion” to faith in Christ (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). The apostles in Acts never speak of repentance as something a Christian does, but always of repentance as something that a non-Christian needs to do in response to the gospel. The same thing is generally true in the rest of the New Testament (e.g., Romans 2:4; Hebrews 6:1, 6; 12:17; 2 Peter 3:9). There is, however, one important qualification: people in the church, who obviously consider themselves Christians, but whose lives demonstrate they are unbelieving, are also summoned to repent (2 Corinthians 7:9-10; 12:21; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; Revelation 2:5, 16, 21-22; 3:3, 19). Some of the Corinthians, for example, had been in danger of following a distorted version of the gospel that excused sin, and Paul’s stern rebuke had led to their repentance and salvation (2 Corinthians 7:8-12). This is not the same thing as urging generally faithful Christians to try to repent more or to repent in an even better or supposedly more complete way.

At least one New Testament passage actually denies that repentance (in the usual sense) is something one can do over and over again. Hebrews says that in the case of professing believers who have experienced enough of the blessings of the gospel to know its power and yet “have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:4-6 NASB). These are not Christians who have committed some sin and need to confess it to God and move forward in their relationship with him. If we wanted to use the word “repentance” in that sense, we could, but that is not its meaning here or anywhere else in the New Testament. These are people who claimed to be Christians, had a taste (Hebrews 6:4-5) of what that really means, and then deliberately turned their back on God and rejected Christ. In that context, there is no repenting over and over.

At this point I should make an important qualification. While the New Testament rarely if ever suggests that people who are already genuine believers need to repent, it does instruct believers to confess their sins (James 5:19; 1 John 1:9). Since Christians do continue to sin, it is essential to their spiritual health and maturity to acknowledge their sins to God and to one another. By confessing our sins, we admit our continuing dependency on God’s grace bestowed on us in Christ. Nothing said here should be taken to deny that the Christian faith involves a process of spiritual growth, of developing in love and holiness. The goal of that process, however, is not exaltation to a higher heavenly kingdom; nor is this process prerequisite to obtaining the forgiveness of our sins. In other words, we do not grow spiritually and are then forgiven, but rather we are forgiven and then we grow spiritually.

There is no basis, then, in the New Testament for the idea of repentance for the forgiveness of sins or for salvation as a lifelong process, as something one must do over and over or better and better. It is, rather, an experience one has at the turning point of coming to genuine, saving faith in Jesus Christ. You cannot repent in degrees: either you have genuinely repented or you have not. Of course, some professing Christians have never really grasped the gospel message and so may think they have repented when in actuality they have not. (Just to be clear, I am not directing that comment specifically or even primarily to Mormons. This is something that is evidently true of millions of people in traditional Christian churches, as well as many people in non-traditional forms of Christianity.) But once a person has genuinely repented as part of accepting the biblical gospel of salvation in Christ, repentance, in that sense, is an accomplished reality in that person’s life. The truly repentant believer in Christ, secure in God’s love and acceptance, assured of eternal life as God’s free gift, and indwelled by the Holy Spirit, can then go on to grow in faith and character.

3. Repentance is an admission of weakness that we cannot measure up to God’s standard, not an untiring effort to do what we can to measure up to that standard.

Consistent with its view of repentance as a lifelong process for attaining exaltation to godhood, the LDS Church teaches that repentance is long, hard work. According to Gospel Principles, “Repentance sometimes requires great courage, much strength, many tears, unceasing prayers, and untiring efforts to live the commandments of the Lord” (109). Repentance in the LDS understanding is a lifelong process because it is a part of the process of becoming perfect: “By repenting every day and having the Lord forgive our sins, we will experience the daily process of becoming perfect” (113). According to Spencer W. Kimball, repentance “is a long road spiked with thorns and briars and pitfalls and problems” (The Miracle of Forgiveness [Bookcraft, 1969], 149). Repentance is an uphill battle: “Steadily and consistently repent of and conquer your sins and weaknesses, and thus receive the forgiveness which will ease and beautify your uphill journey” (162).

There is nothing wrong with shedding tears over one’s sin, and courage, prayer, and efforts to live by God’s commandments are all good things. These things, however, are not repentance. In the New Testament, repentance is not our courageous, untiring effort to conquer sin, but rather an admission to God of our own spiritual defeat. Jesus did not come to call morally earnest people who with strength of will were advancing toward perfection, but instead to call people who were morally and spiritually tired, defeated, and desperately in need of mercy:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13 ESV).

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV).

Jesus’ most famous parable about repentance is his story of the prodigal son. The story follows two shorter parables about a man who finds a lost sheep and a woman who finds a lost coin. In both these shorter parables Jesus comments that there will be great joy in heaven “over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7, 10). The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) makes the same point: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (verse 32 ESV). The runaway son represents the “one sinner who repents.” When he returns to his father’s home, his repentance is expressed when he says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (verse 21 ESV). This is repentance: not an arduous ascent of increasing worthiness but an abject admission of unworthiness. It is not about working as a hired hand in the hope of one day being welcomed back in the father’s house, as the boy had originally thought (verses 17-19), but about humbly accepting the father’s loving embrace and joyous reception (verses 22-24).

4. Good works are the fruit that demonstrate or manifest repentance, but they are not part of repentance.

Gospel Principles gives a list of seven things that a person must do to be “fully repentant” (110-11):

  1. “We Must Recognize Our Sins”
  2. “We Must Feel Sorrow for Our Sins”
  3. “We Must Forsake Our Sins”
  4. “We Must Confess Our Sins”
  5. “We Must Make Restitution”
  6. “We Must Forgive Others”
  7. “We Must Keep the Commandments of God”

This list is a mixture of some of what genuine repentance means (recognizing and confessing our sins to God), some of the legitimate ways that genuine repentance can be manifest (such as making restitution where possible and keeping God’s commandments), some practices that are distinctly Mormon and not required by God in the Bible (such as the “Word of Wisdom” or the need to “sustain the authorities of the [LDS] Church”), and an expectation that is neither biblical nor realistic (to stop sinning). Here I will comment briefly on the fruit of genuine repentance.

It is obvious that one cannot repent without recognizing that one has something of which to repent—that is, without admitting that one is a sinner. The LDS Church is right on this point, which requires no elaboration or defense. Likewise, we also agree that in repentance a person confesses his sins to God. John baptized people in his baptism of repentance “as they confessed their sins” (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5). This recognition and confession of sin when genuine will typically express itself emotionally in some way, but the Bible does not specify what sort of emotional response is expected. The one New Testament text that links repentance with sorrow speaks of a godly sorrow that produces repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9-10); in other words, this sorrow comes before repentance and leads to it.

The New Testament clearly teaches that those who have repented and found God’s forgiveness and mercy will show it by doing good works. Both John the Baptist (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8) and the apostle Paul (Acts 26:20) expressly told people who professed to have repented that they should do works in keeping with their repentance. Jesus similarly taught that we could know a good tree by its good fruit (Matthew 7:16-20). Let there be absolutely no mistake: those who claim to have repented of their sin and to have put their faith in Jesus Christ, but whose lives in no way reflect that repentance and faith, have not really repented. The gospel is not mere “fire insurance” that grants to sinners a free pass allowing them to continue ignoring or rebelling against God. It calls people into a reconciled, restored relationship with God that will eventually result in their moral and spiritual perfection in the image of God’s Son Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). This saving purpose of God will make itself evident in those who genuinely believe the true gospel as their faith works through love (Galatians 5:6).

All that having been said, good works are not part of repentance. Obedience to God’s commandments is not part of repentance. When the New Testament calls us to repentance and faith, it is not summoning us to a lifelong project of becoming repentant enough, good enough, obedient enough, loving enough, and faithful enough to secure, finally, the forgiveness of our sins. God does not withhold forgiveness until we have reached some level of obedience or personal righteousness. Repentance is not a work program. It is, as we have already seen from passages throughout the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles, a change of heart that turns us toward God in order to receive his free acceptance and fatherly embrace.

If we are genuinely repentant in a way that is consistent with the gospel, we will not labor under the false notion that forgiveness of sins is conditional on our successful performance over the course of the remainder of our life. Gospel repentance is a turning of the heart toward God in utter dependence on his freely forgiving and accepting us despite our unworthiness. We have not grasped what the gospel means if we think God accepts or forgives us based on our works. The gospel is that God accepts and forgives us as a free gift of his grace. Mormons sometimes try to argue that it can be a free gift of grace and yet still be something we receive only when we do enough good works, but you cannot have it both ways. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:6 NASB). “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Rather than salvation resulting from us doing good works in order finally to receive forgiveness, good works result from the new relationship we have with God in Christ that is based on his grace instead of our efforts (Ephesians 2:10).

5. Repentance does not mean to stop sinning; if it did, we would have to conclude that no one fully repents and that no one is ever fully forgiven. Rather, repentance means accepting the free forgiveness of sins that comes from Jesus Christ.

Gospel Principles states, “Our sincere sorrow should lead us to forsake (stop) our sins. If we have stolen something, we will steal no more. If we have lied, we will lie no more. If we have committed adultery, we will stop” (110). Spencer W. Kimball put it this way: “There is one crucial test of repentance. This is abandonment of the sin” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, 39). By this reasoning, a person must stop all sin in order to be considered fully repentant. Few Mormons actually claim to have achieved sinlessness, but their doctrine of repentance seems to imply that until they have successfully stopped committing any sin they have not fully repented. Full repentance appears to require complete obedience to everything that the LDS Church says God requires of his people:

“To make our repentance complete we must keep the commandments of the Lord (see D&C 1:32). We are not fully repentant if we do not pay tithes or keep the Sabbath day holy or obey the Word of Wisdom. We are not repentant if we do not sustain the authorities of the Church and do not love the Lord and our fellowmen. If we do not pray and are unkind to others, we are surely not repentant” (Gospel Principles, 111).

Gospel Principles quotes President Kimball’s statement that a person “must live the commandments of the Lord” in order “to secure complete forgiveness” (111-12). This teaching makes both repentance and forgiveness a matter of degrees: if one is only partially repentant, one is only partially forgiven. To be completely forgiven, one must be completely repentant—which means, apparently, one must be completely obedient and have stopped committing any sin.

Such a message, taken seriously, is a counsel of despair. None of us is or can be completely obedient all the time. None of us can claim that at all times we love the Lord with all of our being and our neighbors as ourselves. Yet that is the standard (Matthew 7:12; 22:37-40). Put another way, the standard is the character of God himself, the holiness and love of God revealed in Jesus Christ (John 13:34-35; 1 Peter 1:14-16). It is too much of an understatement to say that we all fall short; it would be closer to the truth to say that we all are nowhere near reaching that standard.

Gospel Principles says that “we are not repentant if we…do not love the Lord and our fellowmen” (111). Well, then, most of the time, even the best of us is not repentant. The most zealous Mormons, if they are honest with themselves, ought to admit as much. We all sin (again, as most Mormons acknowledge), “for we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). The apostle Paul confessed that evil was still in him, warring against his desire to do the right thing (Romans 7:14-24). Therefore, if forgiveness is dependent on being “repentant” in the sense of ceasing from doing sin, we are all in a state of at best partial forgiveness. God’s forgiveness, on this account, is parceled out according to how hard we have worked to repent and perform acceptably.

The New Testament knows nothing of partial repentance or partial forgiveness. When God forgives a person, he forgives all his sins. When some men brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus for healing, Jesus took one look at the man and said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20). Isn’t that too easy? Shouldn’t Jesus have said, “I can forgive a few of your sins now, but you’ll have to get your act together before I can forgive more of them”? No, Jesus simply forgave the man’s sins.

Peter told the Jews on Pentecost that they should repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ “for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38)—not for the forgiveness of those sins they had successfully abandoned, for which they had made restitution, and in contrast to which they had begun living consistently according to the commandments. Again, their baptism was not a good work that aided them on the road upward to spiritual greatness, but a way of admitting that their good works fell woefully short of anything that would please God. Their baptism did not save them, but what their baptism represented—their turning to God for mercy—brought them into a saving relationship with God in which he immediately and fully forgave them of their sins on the basis of what Christ had done. Later in Acts, Peter told Cornelius that “everyone who believes in him [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43 ESV).

Thus, if we are in Christ, we have—not hope eventually to receive, but have right now—the forgiveness of our sins (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14). God has made us alive together with Christ, “having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:13 ESV, emphasis added). “If we confess our sins”—not, if we confess, feel sorrow for, forsake, and make restitution for our sins, and then live obediently ever afterward—“he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV).

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. He comes to us with a simple word: Your sins are forgiven. To accept this gracious, undeserved, free gift is to accept the true gospel of salvation. To put in its place a work program of arduous spiritual discipline, moral development, submission to religious leaders, and other religious obligations as a path to obtaining forgiveness to the extent of our personal obedience is to miss the gospel.


For Further Reflection:

  • In view of such verses as Matthew 3:7 and Romans 2:5, is it really adequate to say, as LDS doctrine would indicate, that repentance is necessary to attain a higher heavenly kingdom?