Question: I don’t fully understand the atonement and repentance. If Jesus paid the price for our sins so that we might overcome spiritual death, why is it we have to pay the price for iniquities? Wasn’t the price paid by Jesus already? What is repentance? I know this seems basic but I have had a really interesting year of what I can only explain as a purging. There are persons in the scriptures who plead with the Lord for deliverance from the chains of Hell.
That is how I’ve felt and in pondering and meditating I am trying to find understanding, but I am at a loss with the bizarre year I have had. I am wondering if it is linked to receiving a remission of sins and if I have misunderstood the atonement and repentance. I am hoping you can shed light on the process of receiving a remission of sins and the atonement and repentance. Thank you.
Answer: Regardless of whether a person repents and is forgiven of his sins, all transgressions against God—against his commandments that are the laws of the universe—have a negative effect on the transgressor and on others who may be impacted. If not reversed, those negative effects on the transgressor can turn into iniquities—habitual sins, addictions, or dysfunctional behaviors—that may continue down the generations. Hence the scriptures say, “Visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9).
When people who repent are forgiven their sins, therefore—through the great atonement Jesus wrought by paying the price of humanity’s transgressions—their challenge remains to “retain” that remission of sins, as King Benjamin taught (Mosiah 4:12). If not, they may repeat them until they turn habitual and become iniquities. Then, if they don’t reverse that trend by repenting of them, their iniquities will reach saturation point or become “full” (cf. Genesis 15:16). Because at that point the rising generation will have little chance to reverse that condition, it actually becomes an act of mercy as well as of justice for God to end things.
When a people’s iniquity gets full, therefore, that is when God destroys them: “For the day shall come that the Lord God will speedily visit the inhabitants of the earth; and in that day that they are fully ripe in iniquity they shall perish” (2 Nephi 28:16; cf. 1 Nephi 17:35). Hence Moroni’s ominous warning to us whom he has seen in vision: “And this cometh unto you, O ye Gentiles, that ye may know the decrees of God—that ye may repent, and not continue in your iniquities until the fulness come, that ye may not bring down the fulness of the wrath of God upon you as the inhabitants of the land have hitherto done” (Ether 2:11).
Even before God destroys a people, however—as he did the Jaredites and Nephites on the American continent—his judgments begin coming upon them in the form of plagues, natural disasters, political decline, economic failure, etc., which warn of worse to come. Moreover, because God deals with humanity solely within the context of the covenants he makes with his people and with individuals, all of humanity’s actions, whether for good or evil, result in either covenant blessings or covenant curses. Thus, even amidst curses or misfortunes coming upon people collectively, God makes provision for individuals who repent.
A people’s collective curses, however, together with sinners’ hurtful actions toward others, may be used to advantage by persons who take ownership of their own and generational iniquities. The afflictions or opposition they suffer can act as a refiner’s fire to purify and sanctify those who offer them up to God as a voluntary sacrifice. In other words, even in the worst of times, the act of being “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19) enables one to simultaneously expiate his own and ancestral iniquities or generational dysfunctions.
We find a beautiful example of this scriptural pattern in the people of Alma who fled the wrath of King Noah. Having repented of their sins and received baptism at the Waters of Mormon, they became clean through Christ’s timeless atonement. And yet, even after they had escaped to the Land of Helam, when Noah’s army sought to destroy them, the Lamanites discovered them and put them into bondage—a covenant curse or residual effect of their former transgressions. Only when that bondage had purified and sanctified them, enabling them to expiate all iniquities or dysfunctions, did God intervene to miraculously deliver them.
Isaiah’s literary keys characterize the hardships that accompany repenting of sins and iniquities as a descent phase—a time when it seems “all hell breaks loose” upon you as you seek to progress spiritually by learning to keep a higher law. The Hebrew word “repent” (shuv), which also means “return,” signifies turning back from your waywardness and coming wholeheartedly to Christ. After he walks you through such a descent phase—testing you sometimes seemingly past your limit—you will unfailingly experience an ascent phase of spiritual rebirth and regeneration, “if thou endure it well” (Doctrine & Covenants 121:8).