Repentance as a Response

One way of conceptualizing repentance is as a series of actions which, if performed with sincerity, lead to the divine response of forgiveness. We recognize that we have erred, fallen short, gone astray, and we go through a number of steps in an effort to make things right again—we confess our guilt, we do what we can to make restitution for our wrongs, we commit to doing better in the future. And once we have worked through these steps, we find that God is graciously willing to forgive, to take us back.

I think this model of repentance can be a helpful way of talking about what’s involved in the process, but I have to admit that it’s not my favorite approach. As a kid, I worried that I was sinning far too frequently to keep track of every sin and dutifully run it through the cycle, and I wondered what happened to sins that you never repented for because you’d forgotten about them. Looking at the model now, though, what really strikes me is that that God’s involvement seems limited to the end of the process. We take the initiative–we recognize that we’ve done wrong, and we do our best to make up for it and do better in the future. And it’s only then, if we’ve made it through the steps correctly, that God responds. In some versions of this approach, repentance almost seems to become a kind of work that we do in order to placate an offended God, even a sort of payment for our sins (which of course raises real questions about the role of the atonement).

In a similar fashion, I sometimes find myself thinking about repentance as if it were basically about about persuading a reluctant God to forgive me. But I suspect that at such times I have it backwards; repentance isn’t about the things I can do to change God, but rather the process of being in an ongoing relationship which changes me. When I look at those moments in my life when I’ve really felt like I wanted to move in a new direction, to do things differently, to be a better person, I find that somewhat paradoxically, what frequently inspires this desire is a sense of being accepted and valued as the person I am right now—not a sense that if I will only get my act together, I can finally become acceptable. To put it another way, I find myself wanting to repent not in an attempt to secure for myself grace, but in a response to grace—in response to God’s continually surprising willingness to be involved in my life even in all its messed-up-ness.

A couple of years ago I ran across an intriguing observation from an Orthodox thinker by the name of Olivier Clement. He writes, “The awareness of being loved and the response that it unlocks are the only criterion of repentance.”1. That gets at something in my experience of the process. I don’t think it means that repentance is just about warm fuzzy feelings. I actually think that the experience of being loved can be profoundly unsettling, even somewhat terrifying. (Along these lines, some suggest that the “flames of hell” simply represent the love of God as experienced by those in a state of rejecting God.) Perhaps this is precisely because it has such potential to be transformative; you cannot experience God’s love without being changed by it.

It takes grace, I’ve been reminded recently, to even recognize sin. And it’s inherently problematic to view sin in isolation, apart from the redeeming work of Christ. I find that reassuring; it reminds me that when I notice sin in my own life, the very fact that I can identify it as wrong points to something else, to the possibility of something better. And it suggests to me that when I fall into despair or hopelessness over the things I do wrong again and again, the seemingly irreparable mistakes, the bad choices I’ve made, that isn’t quite the same thing as “recognizing sin” – because a genuine recognition of sin requires an accompanying recognition of grace.

Repentance, then, might be better framed not as a process initiated by human beings, one in which God only shows up at the end after we’ve gone through the requisite steps, but rather as a human response to a relationship initiated by God. I find this model resonant with scriptural images of a God who actively pursues us–one who stands at the door and knocks, leaves the ninety-and-nine to seek the one lost sheep, and attempts to gather us like a mother hen. Christ does not wait to find out if we will turn back and try to mend things, if we will in fact repent, before getting involved. He dies for us for us “while we were yet sinners.”2


1 Olivier Clement, On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology (New York: New City Press, 2000), 21

2 Romans 5:8


  1. but rather the process of being in an ongoing relationship which changes me.

    Very much so. I’ve been studying repentance from the perspective of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is interesting to see how it works as a part of a program so far from the Church, and how in many ways it is the key to keeping Alcoholics sober.

    I’ve learned a lot from the study.

  2. Good stuff, Lynnette. In spite of simplistic models that are taught to children and new members to help them begin to understand what to do, I think an approach such as what you suggest is in fact what LDS doctrine holds. Just ask Blake Ostler.

  3. Stephen, that’s a good connection to the process of AA. I’m also interested in the theological underpinnings of twelve-step programs–they seem to me to reflect a somewhat Augustinian approach to grace in their emphasis on human powerlessness, and our utter dependence on God.

    Eric, I agree that this model is quite compatible with LDS teachings. I’m always struck in the story of Alma the Younger, how he calls on Christ and can remember his pains no more–and then goes on to lead a transformed life as a result of that experience, not as a precondition of it.

  4. 1 John 4:19

    We love him, because he first loved us.

    Almost invariably, missionary work is successful only to the extend that we can help people understand that they are not already lost causes. This is also the reason that repentance is the second principle of the gospel, preceded by faith in Christ. In my opinion, it is impossible to repent without that hope and love.

  5. their emphasis on human powerlessness, and our utter dependence on God

    Combined, interestingly enough, with an emphasis on work. “It works if you work it” being the catch phrase I remember hearing.

    It is an interesting combination of grace and works.


    for some really interesting free mp3 files that are a basic review, in very entertaining form, of AA.

  6. Lynnette, the quote Stephen mentioned in #1 is exactly what caught my attention. This may sound crazy, but I’ve been thinking lately that our whole mortal existence here is not to prove anything to God (who knows everything anyway), but to instead prove it all to ourselves–to prove to ourselves that we are the children of God. I think your view of repentence fits in with this. It’s about a process that changes us and helps us recognize more or our true selves when we re-think our actions and make them more congruent with our beliefs.

  7. is not to prove anything to God (who knows everything anyway), but to instead prove it all to ourselves

    I have to confess that it caught my attention because it is what my wife told me was her philosophy when we first met.

    It’s about a process that changes us and helps us recognize more or our true selves when we re-think our actions and make them more congruent with our beliefs.

    That is a strong statement. I like it. Think you could expand that, I’d be glad to have you guest post on it on my blog or to try and talk the group bloggers on the group blog I’m on into carrying an essay with that as the thesis statement.

  8. Great post Lynnette. I think the “series of actions” view of repentance is unfortunate in so many ways. All of our conceptions about our relationship with God, what is expected of us, and how we are saved come together in our view of repentance and forgiveness. I wish we could come to view forgiveness as a healing of relationships rather than God erasing X’s off of a score card. We repent by turning back to God after turning away from him and God’s forgiveness is the embrace we find in his outstretched arms, feeling after us when we leave him (D&C 112:13.


Comments are closed.