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Thy Sins Are Forgiven Thee: What the Book of Mormon Teaches About Repentance

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Last month, my wife Chelsea and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. We have a great marriage, loving children, satisfying careers, and a shared commitment to the gospel—none of which was on my mind when I took her out on our very first date to the Subway at the Cougareat food court at BYU in Provo. I had been working up the courage to ask her out for months, and I wanted to make a good impression. As I munched on my sandwich, trying to look like a good catch, Chelsea spoke first. “Jason,” she said, “do you read the Book of Mormon every day?”

Now that is an astonishing thing to ask a person on a first date. I could tell right away it was a pass/fail question. “Yes” would mean spending more time with me to find out whether I was marriageable material. “No” would tell her right away I wasn’t. Luckily, two weeks earlier I had made a personal goal to read the Book of Mormon every day, so I was able to reply with complete honesty: “Why yes. Yes, I do.”

I have thought a lot about that question in the last 25 years. What was it about reading the Book of Mormon that was so important to my future wife? Why was that the question to decide my romantic suitability? I figured out pretty quickly that it was a kind of shorthand. Chelsea wanted to know if I believed like she did, if I was committed to the same things she was, if I was the kind of person she could rely on to live the gospel, keep covenants, and raise our future children to do the same. It was like she was observing how Gideon’s soldiers drank water on their way to fight the Midianites. She wanted to know if I could be trusted to go with her into battle.

Twenty-five years later, I have come to realize that the Book of Mormon does much more than determine partner compatibility. As Sister Carola Villar taught us in last week’s devotional, reading the Book of Mormon puts us in the frame of mind to feel and be guided by the Holy Spirit. It expands our knowledge of the gospel and teaches us that, as Heavenly Father’s children, we have the right to go to him with our questions and receive answers. More than any other book of scripture, the Book of Mormon teaches us how to repent.

In this week’s devotional discussion board, I asked participants how the Book of Mormon has increased their understanding of repentance. Many responses mentioned stories of individual people in the Book of Mormon who repent. For example, Jaren Murdock said, “Repentance isn’t some scary thing. It can be big and small. People have come back from major sins like Alma the younger and smaller sins like the brother of Jared forgetting to pray. Repentance is for everyone.”

I think it is significant that one of the reasons we have the Book of Mormon at all is because a teenager wanted to know if repentance was for him.

Last week was the 200-year anniversary of the restoration of the Book of Mormon. On September 21, 1823, the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith in the upper floor of his parents’ log cabin in Palmyra, New York, to tell him about the records he buried a millennia and a half before.

Joseph had been distressed about the state of his soul for a long time. In one of the earliest written accounts of his first vision, Joseph said that as a young teenager he mourned for his own sins and for the sins of the world. Joseph was born into a culture and a time when many Christians believed in something called “total depravity.” This is the doctrine that all human beings are mired in sin and that God will pick out only a few for salvation. One of the reasons that Joseph was so intent on discovering which church to join is because all of them taught something different about who could be redeemed. Joseph wanted to know how to discern the truth. He also wanted to know, for sure, if his sins had been forgiven. Mercifully, this is the first answer that the Lord gives Joseph in this early account of his first vision of 1820. “Joseph,” he begins, “my son, thy sins are forgiven thee.”

Three years later, in 1823, Joseph was no longer so sure. He no longer felt as righteous as he once had. Part of Joseph’s uncertainty may have been because he was just seventeen and still figuring things out. Part of it may have been because he felt like he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. In fairness, three years earlier the Lord had commanded Joseph not to attend any of the then-existing churches. Consequently, Joseph mingled with “all kinds of society” and was left to “all kinds of temptations.” He felt condemned for his weaknesses and imperfections and worried that he was now “offensive in the sight of God.”

One night, 200 years ago last Thursday, Joseph decided to pray before going to bed. He wanted to be forgiven of his sins. He wanted to know that God still approved of him. Because his first prayer had been answered so dramatically with a visit from God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, Joseph had complete confidence that he would be visited by them again. Instead, something unexpected happened. The little room that Joseph shared with his brothers got brighter and brighter until Joseph could see the figure of an angelic man floating near him in the air. The man introduced himself as Moroni, a long-dead prophet who had buried a gospel record engraved on gold plates. He said Joseph would translate this record, and by doing so would bring about the restoration of the priesthood in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

Now this strikes me as far more than Joseph asked for. I think he wanted something like the revelation he received earlier: “Joseph, thy sins are forgiven thee.” Instead, he got three separate visitations by a previously unheard-of angel with instructions about digging up an ancient record, prophecies about his name being had for good and evil among all nations, and warnings about the wicked burning as stubble. To me, this doesn’t sound like a very comforting message.

Joseph couldn’t have known then what millions of readers know now: The Book of Mormon that he was about to translate would answer the very questions he prayed about. Could he be forgiven of his sins? How can we know that God approves of us? Is it possible to become better people? Who gets to be saved? How does that happen?

It is true that the Bible answers some of these questions, but it answers them obliquely, and, as Joseph pointed out, can be interpreted so differently by different teachers of religion that it is difficult to settle on definitive answers. In addition, the Bible tends to treat redemption as a communal experience rather than a personal one. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is full of stories of individuals seeking and receiving direct, personal relief from their sins. The same kind of relief, in fact, that Joseph himself sought.

A year ago, I was called to serve as bishop in my home ward. At least for me, this was a terrifying assignment. I felt there were many people better suited to the task than I was. I was nervous about directing the work of a complex organization. I didn’t know how I was going to pay attention to 83 youth without ignoring everybody else. I worried about letting my friends and neighbors down. I worried about giving adequate time to church, work, and family responsibilities. Most of all, I worried about helping people repent. I could just imagine someone unburdening their soul to me and then looking at me expectantly. As if I knew what to do. Or what to say. I was so intimidated by the prospect that my very first Sunday I found myself alone in my office offering this absurd prayer: “Dear Heavenly Father. Please don’t let anyone confess anything to me today. I just can’t.”

On my second day as bishop, I discovered that I could create my own study notebooks in the Gospel Library app. I started one labeled “repentance” and began reading the scriptures with that theme in mind. Every time I read something that struck me as useful, I wrote it down. Over the next weeks and months, I found myself making notes about a number of verses in the Doctrine and Covenants and New Testament. However, the book of scripture that had the most to say, by far, about repentance, forgiveness, and individual application of the Atonement of Jesus Christ was the Book of Mormon. Over and over again, I found that the messages contained in the Book of Mormon are uniquely suited to answer the concerns of those of us who want to repent. Here are three Book of Mormon teachings about repentance:

The Purpose of Repentance is Not to Punish But to Rescue

When I was 22 years old, I went to live with my grandmother to save money for college. I worked as a security guard, which meant that from 10:00 at night to 6:00 in the morning I walked around an empty office building, turning off coffee pots. My grandmother, however, thought I spent my nights carousing. It didn’t matter how many times I reminded her I was working; she thought I left the house every evening to hang out with all the wrong people and do all the wrong things. She worried about me constantly and told everyone she knew about her troubles. One morning I came home to find that our home teacher, Fred Van Wert, had put a sign in my bedroom saying, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I loved that sign. I stared at it every morning as I fell asleep and every night when I woke up. My grandmother thought it was a warning to turn me from my wicked ways. To me, it was just a reminder that she loved me.

The phrase “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” is from the Book of Matthew in the Bible. It’s what John the Baptist says to prepare the people for the coming of the Savior. Some scholars call it the worst translation in the entire New Testament. The reason they say that is because of the word “repent.” In English, the word repent comes from a Latin root that means grief, pain, and regret. It’s where we get our words “penalty,” “penitentiary,” “punishment,” and “pain.” And while it is true that feeling godly sorrow can prompt us to become better people, focusing solely on the shame and sadness implied by those words is the opposite of repentance.

One of my favorite repentance stories from the Book of Mormon is in the 15th chapter of Alma. Alma and Amulek have just had one of the world’s worst missionary experiences. Ignored by the townspeople, ridiculed by lawyers, starved and beaten in prison, forced to watch the collective murder of the few people they were able to convert, Alma and Amulek barely escape the city of Ammonihah with their lives. Nearly the first person they meet after arriving in the next city is Zeezrom, the very lawyer who had stirred up all the mob violence in the first place. Wracked with torment for what he had done, Zeezrom lay sick in bed with a physical and spiritual burning. He begged the two missionaries to heal him.

Alma reacted with remarkable compassion. He took Zeezrom by the hand and asked, “Believest thou in the power of Christ unto salvation? . . . If thou believest in the redemption of Christ thou canst be healed.” Perhaps Alma was able to have so much compassion for Zeezrom, in spite of Zeezrom’s misdeeds, because he himself had undergone similar torment. In fact, Mormon uses the same phrase to describe both of their experiences. Alma, during the three days he spent without moving or speaking after being visited by the angel who called him to repentance, was “harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all [his] sins.” Similarly, Zeezrom’s great sin “did harrow up his mind until it did become exceedingly sore, having no deliverance.”

That phrase “harrowed up” is interesting. A harrow is a large piece of wood with iron spikes that is dragged across the soil to break up the dirt and get it ready for planting. It’s a horrifying metaphor that brings to mind a harrow gouging and lacerating human skin. Interestingly, both Alma and Zeezrom identify the sin—not repentance—as the source of that painful harrowing. They are eager for the redemption and relief that can only be provided by the Savior. Christ didn’t atone for our sins to hurt or punish us. He atoned to rescue us from hurt. Repentance, which Alma describes as simply reaching out to the Savior and crying for His mercy, is the process by which we are spared pain, not forced to endure it.

To Repent is to Change

The Greek word that Matthew uses when he quotes John the Baptist’s cry to “repent” is actually better translated into English as “change” or “convert.” It refers to people becoming more like Jesus Christ, as if they had been born again. President Russell M. Nelson says, “When we choose to repent, we choose to change! We allow the Savior to transform us into the best version of ourselves. . . When we choose to repent, we choose to become more like Jesus Christ!” For President Nelson, repentance isn’t just about fixing mistakes. It’s also about fulfilling our purpose here on earth and becoming more like Jesus Christ. “Repentance is not an event,” he says, “it is a process.”

In the Book of Mormon, repentance is almost always tied to conversion. For Alma, Zeezrom, the sons of Mosiah, King Lamoni, Enos, and many others, an essential part of becoming converted to the gospel is repenting of their sins. Many of these conversion stories appear to depict repentance happening in grand and singular events, often involving angelic visitations or public displays of unconsciousness. However, Alma is careful to describe the conversion that comes with repentance as something that takes place over time. He told the people of Zarahemla, “I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself.” Later he will tell the Zoramites that believing the word of God and allowing it to act in our lives is a slow, gradual process, like growing a fruit tree from a tiny seed. The process of repenting, or converting, almost always consists of relying on the Savior to help us make small, daily changes that, over time, improve our lives and make us more like him.

The Offer of Repentance is Always Available

A pattern that repeats itself throughout the Book of Mormon is that people who have received forgiveness themselves are eager to offer it to others. We saw how easily Alma the Younger forgave Zeezrom precisely because he himself had been forgiven earlier in his life. When the prophet Enos prayed and received forgiveness of his sins, he couldn’t rest until he knew that his enemies, the Lamanites, would receive the same opportunity. In a breathtaking display of forgiveness, Moroni desired the same thing. Moroni wandered for years and years after the rest of his family and friends had been killed by the Lamanites. When he found that he had more space and time to write in the plates after abridging the record of the Jaredites, he decided that the thing he wanted most was to tell the very people that had destroyed his civilization that they could be saved. “Come unto Christ, and be perfected in him,” he told them, “that ye become holy, without spot.” Then Moroni told them how. He told them about the priesthood, how to take upon themselves the name of Christ through baptism, and how to administer the sacrament. Moroni reminded them of the Lord’s words to Alma the Elder when he prayed about his wayward son: “As oft as they repented and sought forgiveness, with real intent, they were forgiven.”

What was true for the Lamanites was true for Joseph and is true for you and me. When Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith 1,400 years after burying the plates, it was with the knowledge that the record Joseph would soon translate contained the very doctrine he would need to repent of his sins. Translating the Book of Mormon would inspire Joseph Smith to receive necessary revelations about priesthood ordinances, about baptism, and about the expansiveness of Christ’s Atonement.

Do you worry that you will never be able to overcome your sins and your weaknesses? The Book of Mormon teaches that you can. Do you beat yourself up for not immediately changing into the better person you hope to become? The Book of Mormon teaches that it’s okay to progress slowly. Do you feel you have done something so terrible that the Lord will never forgive you? The Book of Mormon teaches that you haven’t, and He will.

It is my testimony that as we read the Book of Mormon, we will be inspired to repent. We will gain a deeper understanding of the Atonement. We will receive a greater portion of the Spirit to guide us back to our Heavenly Father. Reading the Book of Mormon regularly will give us the courage to speak to others, if necessary, either to confess, to apologize, or to seek help. We will gain confidence in our divine potential as children of our Heavenly parents. Most of all, we will know to whom we can look for deliverance. I say these things in His name, Jesus Christ, amen.