Obedience versus Repentance. Sin definitely interrupts the steady growth that comes with obedience to God, but where exactly does repentance lead to?

In a previous post (“I Am the Way … Unless You Find a Better One”), I introduced a chart used by Elder Merrill J. Bateman in a CES fireside broadcast. On it, he draws two lines, one showing the uninterrupted progress experienced through obedience to God’s will, the other showing a dip caused by sin and a rising again caused by repentance. One question remains unresolved on Elder Bateman’s chart: Where does repentance lead us, in comparison to what our condition would have been had we never strayed? In other words, where should Elder Bateman’s sin-repentance line end?

Mistaken Answers

Occasionally people suggest, “It seems like I’m better off for having sinned and repented, because I learned so many things in the process that I wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t strayed from the straight and narrow path.” If this were true, we would complete Elder Bateman’s graph by making the sin-repentance line continue rising above the obedience line, since the path of sin and repentance would lead to greater light and truth, growth and progress, than perfect obedience does.

But modern prophets have strongly excluded this idea. For example, Spencer W. Kimball said, “This simply is not true. That man who resists temptation and lives without sin is far better off than the man who has fallen, no matter how repentant the latter may be.”[1]

A more common, and understandable, mistake is to suggest, “You are forgiven when you repent, but the progress and growth you might have had through obedience can never completely be recovered.” If this were true, we would complete Elder Bateman’s graph by making the sin-repentance line level out below the obedience line, since the path of sin and repentance could never fully repair the damage to your growth and progress.

However, modern prophets have also taught against this idea as well. For example, Boyd K. Packer said, “If you have already made bad mistakes, there are ways to fix things up, and eventually it will be as though they never happened.”[2]

Full Recovery

True Doctrine. Prophets have clearly taught that repentance can fully restore all the progress and growth lost through sin.

It is clear from Elder Packer’s quote that, in spite of sin’s serious and deleterious effects, we can fully recover all the growth, progress, and joy—the “light and truth”—we have lost. The prophets really mean it when they say, as far as sin is concerned, it can be “as though it never happened.” If we really understand this doctrine, we are obliged to complete Elder Bateman’s chart by drawing the sin-repentance line so that it rises until it meets with the obedience line. The path of sin and full repentance ultimately leads us, not higher or lower, but exactly to the same condition we would have been in if we had been as perfectly obedient as the Savior himself. That is the power of the Atonement, and anything less would ignore many promises made by the Lord himself.

However, this begs the question, “Then why did President Kimball say it’s better to not sin?” That’s a valid point. If repentance fully restores us, then how is obedience better? How do we harmonize these two doctrines? How can we be “far better off” being perfectly obedient, if sin and repentance can make things “as though they never happened”?

Mortal Limitations

One key to this apparent dilemma is found in one word in Elder Packer’s quote: “eventually.” It is true that we can be fully restored, but such promises almost always include caveats like the word “eventually” or “some day.” For example, Joseph Smith spoke of the “principles of exaltation” and said,

It will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.[3]

Progress beyond the Veil. While repentance can fully restore us—eventually—and many of those losses can be recovered in this life, full restoration to the same condition obtained through perfect obedience is a long process that is not necessarily completed in this mortal life.

To add a twist to Robert Frost’s poem, it appears that each can say we have “miles to go [after] I sleep.”[4] While Brother Joseph seems to have been focusing on knowledge and principles, I think this idea applies to the restoration of lost progress as well.

Randy Bott, a religion teacher of mine, often speaks of temporal effects of sin and eternal effects of sin. The eternal effects can be readily made up for by the atonement, but we are often left with temporal effects that continue during our mortal life and affect us until the day we die. For example, a girl may be forgiven of fornication, but that will not remove the baby in her womb (of course, that baby can become a blessing). Or, I may be forgiven for snapping at my wife, but once I’ve developed a habit, it may be hard to eliminate for the rest of my life.

I do not mean this to be discouraging, nor to downplay the amazing promises we have received about full repentance. But it would be unrealistic and a disservice to ignore the far-reaching effects of sin. Even the most righteous and penitent person is still essentially “broken” to some degree until the consummation of our forgiveness after this life. In fact, a thorough understanding of our brokenness helps us appreciate just how much the Savior has done for us.

Conclusion

We can be fully forgiven, to be sure, and many lost blessings can be regained in this mortal life. But that plenary restoration of all lost blessings will not come completely until “beyond the grave.” And until then, we must sometimes continue to shoulder some of the effects of our choices. Thankfully, as Elder David A. Bednar teaches, the Atonement not only provides forgiveness of sin, but empowering grace that enables us to continue until the race is won.[5]

 

References   [ + ]

1. Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), pp. 339–60; cited in Spencer W. Kimball, “God Will Forgive,” Ensign, Mar. 1982, p. 2. The omitted portion, indicated by ellipses, brings up an interesting point that I will address in another post.
2. Boyd K. Packer, “The Spirit of Revelation,” Ensign, Nov. 1999, p. 23. See also Vaughn J. Featherstone, [source].
3. Joseph Smith, “The King Follett Sermon,” Ensign, Apr. 1971, p. 13-14.
4. Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
5. David A. Bednar, “In the Strength of the Lord,” BYU-Idaho devotional, 23 Oct. 2001, speeches.byu.edu.