Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS / MP Lesson 19: “Repentance”

Posted by BrianJ on October 3, 2010

The manual starts of with a question and a statement that seem obvious enough: “What is sin?” and “Faith in Jesus Christ naturally leads to repentance.” I don’t know, but maybe it was that blatant obviousness that got me wondering just how obvious they really are.

1. “What is sin?”
Why should a discussion of repentance start with a discussion of sin? Can we only repent of sins, or can we repent of other things? Is repenting only changing bad behavior or is it a return to better behavior? In other words, if I had been doing something I was justified in doing—something legal, not proscribed, etc.—something that might be considered a “lower law,” and then determined to live a “higher law,” could that be viewed as a type of repentance—and in that sense a repentance that did not first involve sin? Is that a useful way to think about repentance, or am I just playing around with semantics? Is this one way to think about the Old Testament uses of the phrase “And the Lord repented…”?

At any rate, sin is certainly involved in some repentance (if not all). So what is sin? Many of our scriptures seem to view sin as an actual substance—thus we can be “cleansed from sin.” Is that wording literal? If it isn’t, what is the consequence of viewing it as literal? (I can remember that for years and years I thought of the spirit as getting literally dirtied by sin as if by some physical substance; I no longer view it that way, but wonder how many others do.) Still other scriptures discuss sin as a burden or as any offense. How could those definitions of sin change the way we approach repenting of them? (Note: I think that could actually be a useful approach to teaching this lesson: write “substance,” “offense,” and “burden” on the board and discuss the different ways one would try to become free from them, etc.)

2. “Faith in Jesus Christ naturally leads to repentance.”
Why should we even bother to discuss repentance then? Perhaps I’m too much of a zoologist as I read the word “naturally,” but if something truly comes naturally then it hardly seems necessary to teach someone how to do it.

3. “During this [life] we all sin.”
Why do we find this assertion helpful? Suppose we found someone that had never sinned; would we find that problematic? Why? Would that person still have need of the atonement? In what way?

4. “Sometimes we sin because of ignorance…”
I’m gonna come right out and say that the manual got this one wrong. In the very next paragraph, the manual cites James 4:17, “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Also consider 2 Nephi 2:13 and 9: 25.

5. “…sometimes because of our weaknesses.”
Again, I’m a bit skeptical of this statement. What sort of weaknesses do the writers have in mind? There are some general weaknesses—lust, greed, hunger, etc.—that we all share and certainly entice us to do wrong, but in that sense I’d say that “we always (not sometimes) sin because of our weaknesses.”

6. “The privilege of repenting is made possible through the Atonement.”
How so? As you answer this question, try to separate repentance from forgiveness and remission of sins. If not for the atonement, why wouldn’t I be able to change my behavior, make restitution where I had hurt others, and so on? How does the atonement directly influence my ability to repent?

7. “Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point.”
Is this a problem because excusing oneself is just another sin, or because it prevents one from repenting? If the later, how so? I can see how the focus on myself would detract from feeling godly sorrow for how I had hurt others; are there other reasons to avoid excusing oneself?

8. “…sorrow should lead us to forsake (stop) our sins.”
Is “stop” an accurate synonym for “forsake”?

9. “We must make restitution”
Do the admonitions in this section just reflect a law of justification—restoring what was lost—or is there something greater, more sanctifying about the sinner making restitution?

10. “We must forgive others. The Lord will not forgive us unless our hearts are fully cleansed of all hate….”
Really?! I find this statement to be too absolute. In fact, I wonder if it might in fact be impossible to fully forgive others until we have ourselves experienced forgiveness. It may be a circular argument: we can’t be forgiven unless we forgive and we can’t forgive until we’ve experienced forgiveness. Normally, I would find that kind of circularity disturbing, but in this case I think we have our Savior who, in his mercy, seems quite happy to readily forgive others; I can see how he breaks the stalemate.

11. “How [does this lesson] differ from the false idea that repentance is…a list of steps?”
Kudos to the manual for laying it down so clearly!! Woo-hoo! (Sorry; those lists are little pet peeve of mine.)

12. Alma 36
It occurred to me that the parts that are quoted in the manual do not show Alma ever concerned about how he had hurt others; all of the quotes reflect his concern for himself. I didn’t remember Alma’s story quite that way, so I went to Alma 36 and reread it. Surprisingly, there are only somewhat fleeting mentions of how he hurt and now strives to help others; the bulk of his experience revolves around his own personal terror. Now, I don’t point this out to criticize Alma, but rather to point out the mercy demonstrated by the Lord in this instance: Alma was driven to repent solely out of concern for his own soul, and upon asking for deliverance he received it—before ever making any effort at restitution. I think that’s an important illustration of the point I was getting at above (#9 and 10).

13. “Ask the Lord to help us recognize the things for which we need to repent.”
I don’t have much to discuss here. Just to say that I had never considered it this way before, so I’m very grateful for the manual because I can surely benefit from doing this.

14 Responses to “RS / MP Lesson 19: “Repentance””

  1. NathanG said

    Regarding #1. It seems common to bring up the language of having a change of heart as discussed in Mosiah 4 and 5 at the end of King Benjamin’s address as some example of repentance.

    We also like to discuss the good example of King Benjamin’s people in going to the temple to hear the words of their prophet with tents facing the temple as an example of some righteousness, particularly in how we should approach things like conference.

    So, on the one hand, we applaud these Nephites on their righteous example (and if you look more into it, we already see King Benjamin has rid the people of some wickedness, and they at least faithfully follow the law of Moses before his address) going into his address. Then we applaud these same Nephites on their repentance and their mighty change of heart after the address. What did they have to repent of?

    I think this kind of illustrates your question.

    Regarding #11: Agree with your opinion whole-heartedly.

  2. joespencer said


    Great discussion here. Regarding #11, note these changes from the previous version of the manual:

    (1) The whole section now titled “Principles of Repentance” was before titled “How Do We Repent.”
    (2) The first sentence under “We Must Recognized Our Sins” has been changed from “The first step of repentance is to admit to ourselves that we have sinned” to “To repent, we must admit to ourselves that we have sinned.”
    (3) The question concluding the whole “Principles of Repentance” (which now reads: “How do the teachings in this section differ from the false idea that repentance is the performance of a list of simple steps or routine actions?”) was in the previous edition a “Discussion” point: “Discussion: Discuss the steps of repentance.”

    In short, very important changes here!

  3. BrianJ said

    Nathan: great question about what Mosiah’s people repented of.

    Joe: I wondered about how the previous manual worded that; thanks for looking it up. Big changes indeed!

  4. Floyd the Wonderdog said

    I taught D&C 19 in Seminary this morning. There was nothing in the manual about steps of repentance. Just thought you’d like to hear.

  5. kirkcaudle said

    Sin (hamartia) in the New Testament is interesting. Sometimes hamartia is used in the singular and sometimes the word is used in the plural. The difference (to me) seems to be where/how the sin is taking place. Generally we will see the word “sins” if the action is outward:

    “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5).

    The confession seems to be about “doing bad things,” outward actions.

    However, “sin” seems to be something completely different. The difference (to me) is that sin is a way of being. When you are in sin it becomes who you are. The light and the darkness cannot dwell together (John’s idea). Therefore, “sin” is inward. Sin is the natural man, your thoughts, your desires, etc. Sin is something totally other than what you do outwardly, it is who you are:

    “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

    Here in John we see that the people were not only being baptized to be forgiven of their outward sins (as it Mark above), but rather Jesus is changing the “way things are.” Jesus is changing the world, putting it right with God.

    Jesus does not take away our sins (change the way we act) but He takes away our sin (changes who we are). Therefore, once we have dealt with the inward (accepting Christ) the outward come naturally (true repentance).

    I have really wanted to flesh this idea out more in the BOM, but have just never gotten around to it yet.

  6. BrianJ said

    Kirk: good idea to flesh out that distinction more. Very interesting. It’s probably worth starting back in the Old Testament concept of sin, where there is a distinct difference between “sin” and “trespass.”

  7. kirkcaudle said

    I could be wrong, because I don’t read Hebrew, but I have heard that their is no plural form of the word sin. Perhaps someone with more Hebrew knowledge than I could confirm/deny that?

    • BrianJ said

      Just to be clear: I think the plural/singular difference is interesting, but when I mentioned looking into the Old Testament definitions, I was not referring to plural/singular but rather to the difference between sin/trespass.

  8. dss said

    Only commenting on the Hebrew — consider Ezek. 18:30 which uses the “rebellious” version of sin compared to Ezek. 33:15-16 which has both a singular and plural form of the “punishable act” version of sin. Interestingly, in v. 15, when sin/wickedness implies a moral wrong (e.g., robbery, breaking a pledge), restitution is specifically required. Can’t tell if the writer was being legalistic or poetic.

  9. Robert C. said

    On a quick look, it seems “sin” singular is used in the NT mostly by John and Paul, whereas the other Gospel writers use “sins” plural. This might be particularly interesting to take up in light of Joseph Smith’s focus so much on John in passages like D&C 93, etc.

  10. joespencer said

    By the way, because I’ll be teaching this lesson in two weeks, I’m doing a bit of work on Moses 6:51-68 over at the wiki. Anyone interested in contributing, please feel free to hop over there. I’ve begun at Moses 6:51.

  11. Alissa said

    Sorry I am late on this, but we are just now teaching this this week in RS. I don’t believe you have critically analyzed your point #4. Ignorance is not just about the knowing, but it is also about the doing. What I mean here is…to know better and not do better is still considered ignorance. We can’t take the word ignorance to just mean to not know as that would hinder the true flavor.

  12. BrianJ said

    Alissa: I’m not clear on how I missed the true flavor of the word “ignorant” (perhaps I’m ignorant as to its deeper meaning). I agree that ignorance encompasses more than just intellectual knowledge: it includes lack of comprehension, lack of insight, lack of necessary skills, etc. But help me to understand how the word “ignorance” is used to mean anything other than what one knows.

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