The Bible teaches us to repent of all our sins in order to be saved. But what does repentance mean, exactly? Do we have to tell anybody what we’ve done or can we just stop doing it? When is confession necessary?
Most religions offer guidelines for the repentance process. For instance, Catholics go to confession often and confess all their sins. Others require only a private repentance.
For Mormons (the nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), the process is in the middle of the two options. Repentance, for a Mormon, has several steps. Confession is always required, but only the most serious sins require confession to a church leader.
Spencer W. Kimball, a late Mormon prophet, outlined the steps to repentance in his book, Miracle of Forgiveness. He explained five steps to complete the process, which are discussed in a powerful talk by Richard G. Scott.
Read Finding Forgiveness by Richard G. Scott.
Sorrow for Sin
Some people, when praying at night, will offer a generic apology for any sins they “may” have committed. Others list them. However, this is not enough for true repentance. The Bible tells us we need a broken heart and contrite spirit. How much does it matter to us that we have sinned? This is a measure of our true conversion to Christianity. The more we love Jesus Christ, the more it hurts us to know we’ve fallen short of living as He asked us to live.
The commandments were not given to make life hard for us. They were given out of love. They protect us from both temporal and eternal suffering. We may not always understand the reasons behind the commandments and they may seem old-fashioned, but God can see the entire eternal span and He knows the reasons. If we really trust God to have our best interests at heart, we will be devastated to realize we’ve made a mistake.
Fortunately, sorrow is the first step, not the last. God doesn’t want us to feel devastated forever.
Abandonment of Sin
When we finally realize we’ve sinned and we’re sorry, we are determined to change our lives. This isn’t always easy, and sometimes we end up starting and stopping a few times. As we build our relationship with God, we learn to lean on Him for strength as we work our way out of our bad habits.
It is essential that we actually stop committing the sin. Until that happens, the sorrow will never go away. We will continue to experience the consequences of ongoing sin. Of course, stopping the sin doesn’t ensure that all consequences will stop—there are times when the impact of our choices will continue. However, we will not go on adding new consequences to our lives and the lives of others.
As we leave a particular sin behind, we become aware of how much better our lives are. We are happier, and our self-esteem improves. We gain confidence in our ability to become even more perfect as time goes on.
Mormons believe that confession is an important part of the repentance process. However, only serious sins have to be confessed to a church leader, who can then guide the person through the repentance process. This would include sexual sins or criminal activities. For Mormons, this means that we take it to our bishop, a lay minister. More everyday types of sins can be handled between the person and God.
For some friends of other faiths, confessing is the final or only step, but for Mormons it is another step in the process. The process is designed to bring us closer to Jesus Christ and to help us live the way He taught us to live.
If the sin only needs to be confessed to God, we do this through prayer. We need to be very honest and complete with God. While He, of course, knows what we did, we need to demonstrate that we understand not just what we did, but why it is wrong and how it impacted our lives and the lives of others. We need to demonstrate our sorrow for falling short of God’s dreams for us. This is done through a lengthy personal conversation with God.
We also need to confess to anyone who was impacted by our sins or who has responsibility for us. For instance, a teenager might need to confess to a parent about sins involving family rules. An employee may have to go to an employer for sins that hurt their company. If we hit a parked car, we need to find the owner and confess to that person.
As mentioned above, we have to confess our sins to those who were impacted by them. This confession includes apology, but it also includes restitution. As far as possible, we need to make things right. If we break something that belongs to another, we need to repair or replace it. If we spread a lie, even inadvertently, we need to expend an equal amount of effort letting the people you told that you were wrong.
Restitution is an important part of maturity. Mature people take responsibilities for their actions, and taking responsibility includes trying to undo the damage. It also shows God just how serious we are about our repentance efforts. After all, repentance is about getting our lives in line with God’s desires for us—and Christians work to be honorable.
Obedience to All Commandments
While consistent perfection isn’t possible in this life, we should always be working towards it. When we obey God’s commandments, we’re safer and happier and we’re showing God that being a Christian is more than just a label—it is a sincere and meaningful core identity that impacts our lives.
Elder Scott added an additional step to the process, one that was implied by all the others.
Recognition of the Savior
Unless we understand that these steps would be meaningless had Jesus not atoned for our sins, a full repentance would not have been possible. The ability to repent was one of the gifts of the atonement. “I testify that the most critically important is for you to have a conviction that forgiveness comes because of the Redeemer,” Elder Scott said.
He reminded listeners that Satan wants us to think we can’t be forgiven. If we believe that, we give up. Many people who continue in a destructive lifestyle do so because they believe they have been so awful they can’t change or be forgiven. That is Satan’s message, but it isn’t God’s message. The message of the atonement is that through Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven and we can change.
The Role of Confession in Mormon Religion
When we hide our sins from God or from anyone who has a right to know, it becomes harder to be a Christ-like person and to achieve the peace that comes from repentance. Being able to tell God what we’ve done wrong—very specifically confessing our sins, and not just in a vague “sorry for all my sins” sort of way—we find ourselves freed from the power the sins gave Satan over us. We’ve all been in situations in which we’re stressed about something and gone to a friend to talk about it. Once we talk it out, somehow we’re less stressed and upset. Talking to God about our sins has that same impact. We can tell Him that we understand we’ve done something wrong and we know how it has hurt our lives. Then we can ask Him to help us through them. God is always ready to help—but we need to ask for help.
Confessing more serious sins to a religious leader helps us to work through the process. It can be difficult, when we try to do it alone, to know when we are “done.” The loving guidance of a church leader not only shows us the path to follow, but offers us a definite, “You’re finished and you’ve been forgiven” moment that allows us to put our pasts behind us. Just as God forgets the sin when we’ve fully repented, we can also move forward with our lives at that time. It is a comfort to have someone else assure us that we’ve done all God expects us to do.
The Savior’s gift of atonement changed everything for us. It makes it possible to reach the eternity of our dreams.