Repenting Does Not Satisfy Justice – My Journey to Understanding the Atonement

Growing up in the LDS church, I have been taught about repentance and justice over and over again. It is the most frequently discussed topic in church meetings and sessions of general conference. Yet for some reason, I never understood.

If the demands of justice aren’t satisfied when I repent for my sins, then what is the point of repenting in the first place?

Having had a spiritual awakening to the truths of repentance, I noticed that far too often repentance is taught incorrectly, or is at least portrayed as a process that is slightly different than what is taught in the scriptures. We all know that Jesus Christ atoned for our sins in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. Christians all over the world could recite for you, almost verbatim, the story of the final days of the Savior’s life.

I taught countless people about the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the process of repenting while on my mission in Florida. I understood that the only way we could be forgiven of our sins was if we accepted the Atonement of Christ and repented of our sins.

I understood the process: First you feel guilt and pain for your sins. Secondly, you confess your sins to the Lord and you priesthood leaders (where necessary). Thirdly, you ask for forgiveness from the Lord and anyone you may have harmed through your actions. Finally, you receive forgiveness of your sins, forgive yourself, and are relieved of the guilt and pain you felt from your transgressions.

I was wrong.

It seems that many of us believe that for a certain amount of sin that we commit, we must feel a certain amount of guilt/pain for a certain amount of time. Coupled of course with confessing and forsaking said sin. You know, to somehow satisfy justice.

Upon returning home from my mission, I went through a difficult transition to normal life. Things I thought I had left behind suddenly resurfaced. I made a mistake (see When a Returned Missionary Slips – A Cause of Post Mission Inactivity). I still had great faith in the Lord and realized that I needed extra help, so I went to my bishop. I laid everything that I could think of on the table before him. He gave me some talks to read and encouraged me that he knew I could fix this. I was confident too.

Then I slipped again.

I knew that I had messed up and I was angry at Satan for getting at me again. I felt absolutely terrible. I realized that I was completely powerless to overcome this on my own. I texted my bishop the next day and told him what had happened. I asked about the Addiction Recovery Program that the church offers. I got the information and committed to go.

As soon as I did this, the pain went away. I was confused. I didn’t understand why I felt better so quickly. Did I not understand what I had just done? I thought I was supposed to feel immense sorrow and guilt for my sin. I thought I deserved to hurt more. I thought it was only JUST that I hurt more.

Alma 34:15-16 says: “15. And thus shall he bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. 16. And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them about in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice…”

The personification of mercy is our Savior, Jesus Christ. He both overpowered and satisfied the demands of justice when he atoned for our sins. The debt of our sins to justice has ALREADY BEEN PAID. I thought I understood this, but for some reason I had this idea in my mind that when I sin, there is a certain amount of pain I must endure, to satisfy some extent of justice, before I would be forgiven and relieved of my pain.

Pain is meant to change our hearts.

I spoke to my bishop and asked him why I didn’t feel bad about my sins as much as I thought I should have. He reminded me that the purpose of repentance IS NOT TO SATISFY JUSTICE, but to CHANGE OUR HEARTS. We are on this earth to become more like our Heavenly Father. We are here to become as perfect and humble as we can. There is no point in feeling guilt and pain if we already have a sincere desire to change AND HAVE MADE THE NECESSARY STEPS TO DO SO.

When I confessed to my bishop and requested to attend addiction recovery meetings, my deepest desire was to be better and I sincerely took action to change. Once the Lord saw that the pain that I had felt caused me to try harder to be righteous, there was no longer a purpose to feel the pain, so he took it away.

Guilt is meant to change our hearts.

The moment we confess our sins humbly with complete honesty and TAKE ACTION to change ourselves for the better, we will feel relief and peace. In the First Presidency Message of the October 1989 Ensign, Ezra Taft Benson said: “(If you truly repent,) you have no more disposition to return to your old ways. You are in reality a new person. This is what is meant by a change of heart.”

The purpose of repentance is not to satisfy justice. It is to change our hearts so that we actually desire to be righteous and to live the way that Christ did.

I recently had a conversation with former missionary companion of mine. We were wondering why we didn’t feel as happy being home as we did while we served together in the mission field. We realized that we felt the most joy when we knew we were holding nothing back from the Lord. I have since come to realize that when we are sincerely and consistently trying to be the best that we can be, quickly and honestly repenting with a true change of heart, nothing can make us feel down. Our faith is strong, our hope bright, and our joy unspeakable.

Lastly, in a talk given at BYU in 2011 entitled “His Grace is Sufficient,” Brad Wilcox said this: “The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can be cleansed and consoled but that we can be transformed (see Romans 8). Scriptures make it clear that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see Alma 40:26), but, brothers and sisters, no unchanged thing will even want to.

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