A Really Rapid Race Through Repentance

This is a sacrament meeting talk I recently gave. My favorite English dork wants to read it and I want to oblige. So FWIW…

For my part in today’s discussion of repentance, I want to present what the NT contributes to the topic. I shall begin with a sample of repentance as taught by John the Baptist and then Jesus, letting Luke stand in for his fellow Synoptic evangelists. If time permits, I will continue with some of the contributions of Johannine and Pauline communities, the two great theological centers of the NT era. My point in this approach is initially to present and emphasize the pervasiveness of repentance in the minds of the NT authors. In the end, I hope that the logic and power of their arguments will influence your own appropriation of repentance.

The first step in appreciating the NT’s approach to repentance is to understand what the word generally meant in the world of the 1st century, and what it meant in the NT context. In secular Greek usage, the simplest definition of repentance is a change of mind. In the NT, it almost never means this. Instead, it has connotations of turning away from sin, of a new moral beginning, or of conversion. Thus repentance is far more than a mental or emotional response. In this, it follows Israel’s prophetic tradition.

Israel’s prophets invariably understood the relationship between man and God in very personal terms. The question of man’s standing with respect to God was the single most pressing question of existence. While sin presented itself in individual faults that could be cataloged, fundamentally they were simply the result of a wrong relationship with God. In the world of the prophets, it is not that apostasy is a sin, but that sin is apostasy, a turning away from God. Repentance, then, is a re-turning back toward God, or away from sin and toward God.

The bottom line is this. The command to repent in the NT is not an appeal for emotional regret, it is not a change of mind, nor is it a demand for penitential acts or a directive to ask for forgiveness. It is the invitation to make a radical, life-altering change in your relationship with God. It is an event, not a process. The new state of affairs so attained inevitably plays out in moral conduct – in how you behave.

Repentance in Luke’s World

With this understanding in mind, we turn now to Luke’s Gospel and pick up the work of John the Baptist. Luke records that John worked in the region of the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What John preached, then, was a baptism associated with a commitment to decisively and completely turn away from sin. The upshot of this baptism was forgiveness of sins.

Of particular interest is the interchange between John and those who came out to be baptized. After a friendly welcome clarifying their moral standing as the offspring of vipers, John exhorted them to “produce fruit worth of repentance.” By this, he required them to alter their behavior so as to show their turn from evil and toward God. When asked how to do this, John gave four concrete examples (3:11-14)

Whoever has two tunics must share with him who has none; whoever has food to eat must do likewise. Toll-collectors also came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” And to them he would say, “Collect nothing for yourselves – nothing beyond what is authorized.” When enlisted soldiers asked him, “And what are we to do?” he would say to them, “Avoid extortion and blackmail; be content with your pay.”

The first two, then, are a directive to share what one has with others, while the last are a command to refrain from abusing a position of power in the interests of gaining more. Folks who are interested in the BoM concept of retaining a remission of sins will note a certain thematic relationship between John’s advice here and that of King Benjamin in Mos 4:26.

In his own ministry Jesus transcends John’s call for repentance. His first use of the word repentance, in a dinner party at the home of a recent convert named Levi, associated his own coming from God with this concept. Responding to the question of some Pharisees and their scribes regarding why the disciples of Jesus were eating with sinners, Jesus answered them by saying (Lk 5:31):

The healthy have no need of a physician but the sick do. I came not to call the righteous to repent, but rather sinners.

Thus, the mission of Jesus as explained here in Luke is to invite those who sin, who have turned away from toward God, to decisively reorient themselves in God’s direction.

The fact that Jesus described his mission in terms of a call to repentance brings us to the matter of Luke’s ideas about discipleship. In Luke’s thought, repentance is one of four ways that we humans respond to the message taught by Jesus. The other three are faith, conversion, and baptism in the name of Jesus. These four are obviously related.

Luke’s thought about faith is best exemplified in the parable of the sower, in its description of the seed that falls on good ground. Those who exhibit faith are “those who listen to the word and hold on to it with a noble and generous mind: these yield a crop through their persistence” (8:15). Thus, faith begins simply by hearing the word. It persists in an obedience characterized by the noblest of human reactions and its maturity is revealed in consistent right behavior. Conversion, like repentance, is a “turning” word. While repentance can imply both a turning away from sin and a turn toward God, conversion denotes only to a decisive turn toward God (Lk 22:32). Thus faith and conversion are a disciple’s move toward God, while repentance is a decisive turn away from an evil lifestyle – both a precursor and result of faith and conversion.

The centrality of repentance in Jesus’ mission is reiterated by its presence in the final commission with which Luke’s Gospel closes (Lk 24:44-47):

Then Jesus said to them, “Now this is what my words meant which I addressed to you while I was still with you: All that was written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms must see fulfillment.” Then he opened their minds to an understanding of the Scriptures. “This,” he said, “is what stands written: The Messiah shall suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In his name repentance for the forgiveness of sins shall preached to all the nations—beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of this!

In this final statement, Jesus closes his own mission with a command that returns his disciples to his own origin as a preacher of repentance—as he did, so now they are to do. But as disciples they are to preach repentance in his name, so that those who respond receive forgiveness of sins. Thus in Luke’s thought forgiveness of sin is one of the effects of the Christ event. Disciples are those who upon hearing the word of Jesus respond by reforming their lives in confidence of receiving forgiveness.

What happened to baptism? Baptism in the name of Christ doesn’t show up in Luke’s story until it bursts upon the scene in Acts. Peter’s first speech, delivered on the Day of Pentecost, is a classic example. When his audience responds to his testimony of Christ by asking what response is required of them, Peter answers (Acts 2:37-39):

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This then, sound more familiar to modern ears. Disciples are to summoned to make the required life-changes and let baptism be given to them in anticipation of two other gifts: forgiveness and the Spirit.

What, then, to gather from all this? Perhaps first and foremost the gravity of the call to repent. This summons to turn away from sin, from evil, really from anything that is not God or that does not lead toward God, is at the heart of Christ’s mission and message. Faith, which in Christian thought is a response to God acquired through hearing and obeying the word of Jesus, is very much the positive side of repentance. But the most central message in Luke’s thought on repentance is that this thorough-going reform of life is the means by which we appropriate one of the effects of Christ’s coming, the forgiveness of sins. And that has the weightiest implications for our future relationship with God.

Repentance in the Synoptics

Stepping back, now, from Luke while remaining in the larger realm of the Synoptics… The repentance command, to turn away from sin and toward God, is also present in the Gospels even when the words “repentance” and “conversion” are not present. The categorical demands of Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount require precisely this same reform and commitment. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Mt 6:33) or “Be ye therefore perfect” (Mt 5:48), do not leave room for divided loyalties or ambiguous behaviors. Similarly, the discipleship sayings, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38) or “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will find it” (Mk 8:35) indicate that an unconditional surrender to God and to a life lived on his terms is the only way to salvation. “Repent!” is always the imperatival consort of the kingdom of God whether stated or left unsaid.

Repentance in the Johannine World

John’s Gospel and the epistolary literature associated with the community of the Fourth Gospel sometimes seem a world away from the Synoptics. But despite the fact that the words “repent” or “repentance” never appear, the same demand for a radically heaven-centered approach to life is present. The discourse of the third chapter of the Gospel makes a particularly strong case. After clearing up Nicodemus’ confusion about being born from above, Jesus goes on to explain his own mission (Jn 3:17-21):

For God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world,
but that the world through him might be saved

Whoever believes in him is not condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned
for refusing to believe in the name of God’s only Son.

Notice here that there are two states, condemned and not condemned. Your status is determined by your response to Jesus. Instead of talking in terms of repentance and the reform that comes from turning away from evil, John talks in terms of turning toward Jesus in faith. Since Jesus was sent by God to reveal God’s own self, a movement in faith toward Jesus is a movement toward God. Or, to approach the issue from another direction, the word “sin” with respect to Jesus in John’s Gospel is always singular and always denotes a failure to believe in Jesus. Thus, the divine demand to believe in Jesus is very close to the command to repent – and equally as absolute.

This uncompromising attitude to a choice between God and the world is also found in the First Epistle of John. Beginning toward the middle of the second chapter, the Elder writes (2:15-17):

Do not love the world nor what is in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the desires of the flesh, and the desires of the eyes, and pride in one’s possessions does not belong to the Father but belongs to the world. And the world is passing away and its desires. But the one who does the will of God abides forever.

The three worldly factors, desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, and pride in one’s material possessions are not really vices as much as they are human nature in the absence of God’s Spirit. Thus, the desires of the flesh are attention to the physical in lieu of the spiritual. The desires of the eyes reflect an ability to see only what is visible, thereby missing the invisible. Pride in one’s possessions is satisfaction with the material life rather than turning and stretching toward God. None of the three are really what we think of as sinful, they are simply contentment with this world. Nevertheless, they are condemned in the same uncompromising terms used elsewhere for sin. The one who abides forever has turned from these things toward God.

Repentance in the Pauline World

And so we come to Paul… By now, there should be no doubt that Paul, like the rest of his NT buddies, thinks that man is required to re-orient his life away from evil, self-interest, and base contentment in a turn toward God. Although Paul does use the words “repent” and “repentance” a handful of times, most of the time it is his concept of faith that covers the idea of a radical transformation in the human-divine relationship.

To Paul, faith is the preeminent response of all humans toward God’s saving work accomplished through Christ Jesus. Faith is not a vague, trusting commitment with no specific object. The object of Paul’s faith is conviction that God through Christ has made the crucial difference in human history. Faith therefore begins with “hearing,” which to Paul means listening to what is said about Christ and how God has saved us through him. As Paul puts it “faith then comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), that is, by speaking about Christ. The beginning of faith is an assent to the proposition that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9a). This implies that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, and that you will likewise be raised from the dead and saved (Rom 10:9b). But it does not end there.

The culmination of faith is the hypakoē pisteōs, which is often translated as “the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:25). Very literally, hypakoē pisteōs is a “hearing under faith,” that is, a submissive hearing or listening to God. It connotes the total commitment of believers to God in Christ. This total dedication to God through Christ excludes all reliance on self, which is what Paul calls “boasting” (Rom 3:27). Such a devotion to God permeates and informs every other human relationship, ordering every action and interaction according to the divine standard. It is a final and decisive turn away from sin and toward God, a reordering of one’s life in a new relationship that transforms all other relationships. Students of the BoM may profitably connect Paul’s thoughts here the expression “no more desire to do evil.” Paul thus joins John in describing repentance, a decisive reform of one’s life, without using the word itself.

Two other points are required to round out Paul’s thoughts. First, faith does not come by human action or design. Like every other aspect of the salvific process, faith is a gift (Rom 3:24-25; 6:14; 11:26; 12:3). Second, even the hypakoē pisteōs does not complete the formulation of Paul’s doctrine of faith. For Paul, faith must be manifest in certain behaviors. He characterizes this requirement in Gal 5:6:

In union with Christ Jesus neither circumcision or the lack of it is of any value, but only faith working itself out through love.

Paul’s idea of love is an outgoing interest in, concern for, and respect of, others. This results in action, subordinating the personal interests of the one who so loves to the interests of object of that love. Thus Paul urges the Romans to have no debt “save that of loving one another. for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8). Thus the Christian who lives under faith finds this faith coming to fruition in loving deeds, which actually fulfill the very law that faith subsumes.

And so we come to the end of this warp-speed tour of NT thought on repentance. More could be said, but what I have said suffices. Repentance in the NT is a decisive turn away from sin and base contentment toward God. Sorrow, regret, desire to reform, etc., are all fine, but they are not repentance. Repentance is change.

Repentance plays an explicit and central role in the mission of Jesus in the Synoptics. By means of repentance, disciples appropriate forgiveness and a renewed standing before God. The command and concept of repentance are present even when the word itself is not found. Repentance is the response of a disciple and in its maturity it joins faith in giving rise to a godly life.

And now the final and most important point is this: the success of repentance is not based on human actions or intent. Instead, repentance grows from the nature and inclination of God. Although my intelligence sources indicate that today’s GD lesson is repentance in the minor prophets, I must steal some thunder because the best articulation of God’s initiative is surely in Joel. Chapter 2 opens with a classic description of a day of the Lord and the Lord’s assault on his own city, Zion. At the conclusion of this description, in the only oracle directly attributed to God in Joel, the potential for influencing God’s intentions arises:

Yet even now, says the Lord,
….return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
….Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord, your God.

For gracious and merciful is he,
….slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.

Who knows? He many turn and relent
….and leave behind him a blessing,
Offerings and libations
….for the Lord, you God.

The point is this: the requirement for human repentance is whole-hearted, lasting, change. But even under those conditions, who knows? In Joel’s thought (mine, not yours), God is neither bound nor forced. The initiative remains with him. Fortunately for us, however, his nature is such that our success is assured.

And don’t you just love that expression “rich in kindness?”

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Nice work Mog.

    So what are the words that get translated as “repent”? I see the Greek metanoeo in several places in the NT but I thought that generally indicated a change of mind.

    I hear that the Hebrew Bible uses shuv (to return) and nicham (to feel sorrow) but it is not clear to me how to reconcile this more robust (and more correct IMO) definition with the seemingly watered down Greek word metanoeo.

    Any thoughts for a novice like me?

  • Mogget

    Metanoeo is, in fact, the verb translated as “to repent” except where it is translated “to change one’s mind.” In context, repent / reform are indicated far more often than the idea of changing one’s mind.

    What distinguishes the two is context — and this is no small issue. Consider Jesus’ expression in Mk 1:15: “The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near! Repent, and believe in the good news!”

    Approaching the issue informally, should we think that Jesus meant:

    “Change your mind and believe in the good news!”

    or maybe

    “Reform your life and believe in the good news!”

    To first century Jews, not faced with the religious diversity of later periods, probably the later.

    From a more formal perspective, consider the balance of the two sentences:

    time has been fulfilled AND the kingdom of God has come near

    repent AND believe in the good news

    “Repent” is set opposite the idea that the time has been fulfilled. Thus, to repent is to turn away from the old aeon, while to believe is to respond to the new. Reform or repent is the better translation because far more is wanted than a change of mind.

    And as I hope I made clear above, faith and repentance are not really two distinct things. They both work on the turn away from sin and toward God.

    By way of contrast, an example of the related metamelathsetai as a change of mind is in Heb 7:21, “but he through the swearing of an oath, through the one that says to him “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.’”

    In this case, there is no indication that the Lord needs to reform his life, so change of mind is the better translation.

    The issue with Hebrew is rather similar. The verb sub is a normal word for turning or turning back. In other contexts, it picks up the idea of “to repent.”

    Joel is an interesting case in point. Joel never suggests a sin from which his audience must turn away. Instead, he simply advocates a turn toward God in the hope that he will avert the crisis. Should Joel then be translated with “to repent” or simply with “turn?”

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com/ Geoff J

    Well I certainly think the life reform and turning to God (shuv) definition of repent fits my understanding of the word far better than a more shallow change of mind. I think the deeper life change is the standard way the word repent is used in the BoM and modern scriptures too. But it is useful to have some of this background info on the original Greek and Hebrew words and their meanings to support that point from time to time.

    So I am totally with you on this. Nice post.

  • LXX Luthor

    Nice, but I bet you didn’t get to give the whole thing did you? Unless you went way over time and ticked everyone off. That would be great, I mean funny.

  • Bishop

    I have tried to post here a couple of times this weekend, without success. Am I doing something wrong?

  • Bishop

    That last one worked, so I will try again.

    Thank you for this post. I am a Bishop in a YSA ward and have had reason to give this topic quite a bit of thought.

    To be honest, I am a bit troubled with the way that we teach repentance. In my own, admittedly incomplete study of the NT teachings on this topic, I don’t think I see anything resembling what we so often call the “repentance process”. So many of us seem to have the idea that repentance takes a prolonged period of time, and that forgiveness is granted only after the penitent has followed the formula, experienced the appropriate amount of guilt and shame, and suffered the requisite amount of pain.

    We also talk a lot about repenting of individual sins. While I don’t disagree with that notion, the NT seems to focus more on repenting of sin in general, rather than asking us to repent of specific sins one at a time.

    These notions of repentance do not seem scriptural to me. I could be wrong though and I will have to make a point of studying this further.

    I am concerned that one result of this concept of repentance is that repentance becomes at once too easy and too difficult. It is too easy, because it takes the focus off the need for a whole hearted return to God. It is too difficult, because it requires a prolonged step by step approach, sometimes accompanied by formal or informal disciplinary action, and often leaves the penitent wondering whether all the steps have been taken so as to qualify for forgiveness.

    I would appreciate your comments. Am I missing something here?

  • Mogget

    Well, it looks like you made it this time.

    It’s been so long since I posted this that I don’t look closely at the messages in the moderation queue before I hit the global delete. So if I deleted something serious, I apologize.

  • HP

    I think the Book of Mormon supports your outlook, Bishop. Obviously Mogget thinks the NT does. I think it is, to some degree, the desire to generalize commandments that has led to this problem.

    To paraphrase Mogget, I think repentance is an event and a process. The event is our whole hearted turning to God. The process is our continued turning to God (after the first time).

    Also, I have no idea why your responses are getting hung up. It might be the email account you are giving (the end of it is usually a red flag for some form of spam).

  • Mogget

    Hm. You seem to be real enough. Here comes a stream of consciousness. I will be happy to dialogue with you, and hope that others will join intelligently and respectfully because we are all on very serious ground.

    Let me pull two things apart here. One is what the NT teaches about repentance. The other is the way we address repentance in our religious discourse.

    As you have noted there is perhaps some tension – and I really appreciated your description of it being both too hard and too easy. Very well put. I have sensed it as well, and sought to address it. But my goal is not so much to correct as to enlarge our understanding as a community.

    The way we teach repentance, as a process, is authoritative to us regardless of its appearance in the NT. The things we teach as part of the repentance process address how we maintain membership in our community and how we interact with each other. That is properly and rightly the role of the community leadership to address and set these standards.

    My thought here is that in an individual’s relationship with God, which is NOT under the purview of the community, the bottom line remains the NT’s teaching. Turn away from sin and toward God. Just stop doing the wrong things. Now. Committ yourself to a right relationship. You will spend the rest of your life figuring out how to do it, but for this purpose you have the gift of the Spirit.

    Forgiveness comes from an interaction with God. It is totally under his control. As the passage from Joel makes clear, we cannot manipulate or control him even by good behavior. It is at his good pleasure and fortunately for us, he is pleased to forgive. On the other hand, it would be stupid to try his patience, eh?

    Membership in the LDS community comes from an interaction with the community leadership.

    There is also something of a disconnect between our ideas of sin and those of the NT. This is most apparent in John, but it also shows up in Paul. Both these NT authors and many others seem to think that once you really have the gift of faith, you don’t sin again.

    Perhaps this is true, but it is not my experience. Therefore, when I talk about my own experiences, which I did for a bit after the formal part of the talk and then in GD class, I moved toward repentance as a way of life. By this I meant both a singular, sincere, committment, and a re-affirmation of that committment in each decision that follows. Each time I choose to do the right thing, I re-affirm my repentance. Each time I correct a sin, I re-affirm my repentance.

    But the other side of this coin is the folks who for one reason or another cannot seem to forgive themselves, or somehow refuse God’s forgiveness because THEY do not feel they’ve suffered enough.

    This is one of the saddest results of sin. It comes from not appreciating the profound depths of the love of God. I wrote a bit about it here.

    So I guess what I saying is that there’s a need to both sincerely convict ourselves of sin and then find God for real forgivenss. Can’t have one without the other. In between is the matter of membership and participation in the community and processes and steps and all that.

    I do think we ought to apologize and make restitution. It’s common courtesy and it makes life in the community livable. But I don’t think that the commmittment to turn away from sin should wait until we find the requisite courage. And God can act anytime he likes, obviously.

    But it’s the turn, turn, turn, the genuine, sincere, decisive turn, that is the critical thing. Only God can judge and he will — in the richness of his kindness. The rest of us will simply see what John called “the fruits” of a person who responds to God’s kindness with kindness.

    Surely the Elder had it right in 1 John — we love because he first loved us!

  • admin

    It’s your email addy. Just use a fake one, with a nice, normal, .com ending if this happens again.

    Mogs

  • Bishop

    Thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt that I am indeed real!

    I think I agree with the distinction you make between maintaining our membership in our community and our relationship with God. The part of my calling that I absolutely hate is the part that requires me to consider whether or not some disciplinary action is appropriate, whether that action be withholding of a temple recommend, probation, or something even more drastic. I recognize that somebody has to do that job, but I hate it. One of the reasons I hate it, is that I am a softie, and I don’t like imposing punishment on people. Particularly when they are sitting in front of me with tears in their faces, staring at the floor and feeling devastated that we are even having that kind of discussion.

    But there is another reason I hate it. People in that position are seeking God’s forgiveness. They are invariably good hearted people who have succumbed to temptation. Those who don’t care never come to see me in the first place. They are not making a distinction between the rules of the community and their relationship with God. And, frankly, it is rather difficult for me to say “Look, dear sister. God loves you. He knows your heart. He knows you haved turned to Him and want more than anything to live according to his commandments. Of course you have genuinely repented, but I still can’t let you get married in the temple for at least a year. Sorry, company policy and all that.”

    I have had many beautiful experiences with individuals who have come to me feeling burdened by guilt and who have left my office feeling peace and even joy. Thsoe were cases when we reviewed some great scriptural passages about repentances and forgiveness. Those discussions have proceeded in a manner similar to what you have outlined above. My discussions with people when I have felt constrained by the church standards I am obligated to enforce have not been nearly as satisfying, although usually we have found a way to satisfy the competing demands. But my greatest fear is doing damage to somebody’s soul by teaching and enforcing what I think are nonscriptural concepts of repentance and forgiveness. That will be a real crisis for me, and I don’t know how I will hanle it. Maybe that day will never come, but the tension is real when you are sitting in my chair and have the beliefs that I have.

    Sorry if I have been too personal. There is something about the ability to vent anonymously that gets me going.

  • Mogget

    Hm, yes, venting. I myself am rational, sane, and perfectly in control at all times… Just ask my homies here on FPR.

    ;)

    doing damage to somebody’s soul by teaching and enforcing what I think are nonscriptural concepts of repentance and forgiveness

    Ah, yes. I see. Discrimination in these cases has been taken away from the lowest levels of decision-making authority. You worry that a young person will read a rejection by the community, in the form of a refusal of temple blessings, as something more than it is. Very serious matter.

    Two things pop to mind here. First, you seem to be assuming a great deal of responsibility for someone else’s relationship with God. In one way, it’s good that you take your role that seriously. In another, you might want to consider how much of that particular interaction you need to let grow and develop on its own.

    I think one of the things that lurks behind all this is the idea of we humans must take responsibility for our own actions and their consequences. Folks who get involved in the sorts of things we’re alluding to, and who genuinely accept responsibility for their own actions will work through the situation. In fact, I think they’ll have a great deal of Help in the matter. You can, of course, be part of the help. That you are naturally kindly will only aid in the process.

    I’m also reacting to your use of the expression “nonscriptural.” As an exegete, I love the scriptures. OK, I’m obsessed with them as they’ll tell you around the Nacle. But I also know that every scripture, no matter how much I love it and respect it, is historically conditioned.

    It’s right for it’s own time, perhaps, but it’s further application can be problematic. So what I’m saying is that every idea found in scripture is not necessarily a good one for right now and conversely, ideas not found in scripture ought not be rejected simply for that reason.

    Just sayin’s all. We each make up our own minds on this stuff. I do, in fact, see your dilemna and hope it never arises.

  • Bishop

    Thank for your comments, once again. Issues like repentance, forgiveness and atonement are at the heart of what we are about. I am glad that God made a few Bible dorks to help bring clarity of thought to the rest of us.

  • Jacob

    Bishop,

    You raise some difficult questions, which I have thought a great deal about myself. I am a bit disappointed that we haven’t had more comments in response from others who have sat behind the Bishop’s desk as you have and struggled with these issues from the same perspective. I would love to hear more from them.

    I really liked this post and I second the approach to repentance outlined by Mogget. A few thoughts I had while reading your comments.

    First, even though I see your point about repenting of sin in general, I think it is very natural and appropriate for a person coming to confess a sin to the Bishop to be focused on that individual sin. It just seems unavoidable in light of human psychology. In my experience, it is only after getting past these “bigger” sins that a person is able to approach sin in a more general sense. Sometimes we teach (for example, in a talk this week in my church meetings) that you can’t truly repent of armed robbery if you continue to drink coffee. I just reject that idea as an impractical approach to repentance. I don’t have the capacity to focus and work on every kind of sin I am currently committing. I trust the Spirit to tell me which of my sins I should be focusing on right now, and that works for me.

    On the topic of disciplinary action verses being a softie. Obviously a tough thing to wrestle with which must be considered on a case by case basis. You seem to lean naturally toward the softie side, so here is a thought on from the toughie side. I really feel that disciplinary action can very helpful to a repentant person. A person who goes to confess to a Bishop does so because they feel the sin they have committed is a serious one. In many ways the Bishop’s handling of it serves to confirm or undermine that belief. If the Bishop treats it to lightly, it can convey to the person that the sin is not so serious after all, and this can make it that much harder for the person to turn fully from it and stay away from the sin going foward. Sometimes, validation of the seriousness of the sin is just what they are looking for, and just what they need to help them forsake their sin.

    I can’t stop without saying one more thing. I think our focus on suffering is misguided. It makes me sad when I hear of people who wonder if they have repented because they have worry they have not suffered enough. I view suffering as the motivator for repentance, not repentance itself. I love the way C.S. Lewis says that we can’t control how we feel so we should leave that part up to God. We can’t manufacture feelings. If God wants us to feel more sorrow, leave that up to him. In the mean time, that shouldn’t stop us from perpetually turning away from our sins and trusting that God is anxious to forgive us.

  • Bishop

    You make some good points Jacob. I don’t think that we should allow ourselves to be drawn into a false dichotomy by arguing that a focus on repentance of individual sins precludes a broader turning of our whole hearts God. Clearly it does not. However, when our members are seldom taught about repentance in the way Mogget has described, they start to believe that repentance means going through something called the “repentance process” with respect to individual sins. That false, or at least limited notion of repentance impairs full repentance of the kind taught in the NT. They also have a tendency to think only of the sins that pounded into their heads has youth and don’t give much thought to the weightier matters of the law. I guarantee you that if I say “repent of your sins” in a talk in church, 80% of my members will immdiately think of sexual sin of some kind and nothing else. None will think of the fruits of repentance mentioned in Luke, for example, those being charity toward the poor, as I recall.

    Regarding serious vs less serious sins, I do question our hierarchy of sins. I would shocked and delighted if one of my members came to me broken hearted because she wanted to confess her repeated failure to love her neighbor.

    On the soft vs. tough approach, this is always a constant tension. There is no one size fits all answer. However, let me tell you about one conversation I had with a man who had confessed some fairly serious sins. Not in the excommunication or disfellowshipment category, but definitely troublesome. We had a long and very productive discussion. He was clearly remorseful and repentant and I could tell he was expecting some kind of disciplinary action. At the end of the discussion as I stood up, he gave me an awkward look and asked if that was all. I said yes. He asked whether I was going to suspend certain privileges of membership, or take some action against him, and he even looked a bit confused and disappointed when I said no. I then said “I am not going to let you off the hook that easy”. Then he was really confused. He was a repeat offender. I said something like the following:

    “I don’t want you to get the idea that you can come in here and confess and take your punishment and it is all over. It is not that easy. I expect far more of you than that. This is not about paying the penalty that I impose for sin. This is about a fundamental change inside of you and I don’t want you to think that this is “taken care of” when you have been duly punished. I want you to take responsibility for repairing your relationship with God and discipline from me has nothing to do with that.”

    I am pretty sure he got it.

  • Mogget

    I want you to take responsibility for repairing your relationship with God and discipline from me has nothing to do with that.

    Mogget bows to a master of human psychology and a masterful response!

    Beyond that, we can talk about the sins of the young and the sins of the old. Consensual cuddling of the carnal kind is contrary to commandment, but that business about loving one’s neighbor… On it hangs all the Law and the Prophets.

  • Mark IV

    Consensual cuddling of the carnal kind is contrary to commandment

    Mogget, you make me miss elder Maxwell.

  • Miss E. Maxwell

    Heh, heh.

    I’m writing about alliteration right now in Revelation for my dissy. The great Whore is kekrusomene krusio, that is, “gilded with gold,” doncha know!

  • Jacob

    Bishop,

    See, you are obviously much better at being a Bishop than I would be. I appreciate the story. “This is about a fundamental change inside of you and I don’t want you to think that this is “taken care of” when you have been duly punished.” Well said.


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