Exercising Willpower and Self-Discipline in Overcoming Bad Habits and Weakness of the Flesh Doesn’t Qualify As Repentance

Click here for Table of Contents

Concerning our salvation the prophet Joseph Smith taught: “If men would acquire salvation, they have got to be subject, before they leave this world, to certain rules and principles, which were fixed by an unalterable decree before the world was.”

In the next sentence he went on to say, without explanation: “The disappointment of hopes and expectations at the resurrection would be indescribably dreadful.” History of the Church, 6:50-51).

This sobering pronounced by the prophet should weigh heavily on our minds. One of the most oft-repeated statements in the scriptures is to repent. Certainly repentance is one of the principles the Prophet was referring too. The purpose of this post is to further our understanding of the second principle of the gospel; repentance.

A Question for the Saints

For Latter-day-Saints, heaven consists of three degrees of glory: the telestial, the terrestrial, and the celestial. To inherit any one of these glories is to receive a place in one of the Lord’s kingdoms. However, the rewards obtained in each degree of glory differ significantly.

In the language of the scriptures, the glory of the celestial is compared to the sun, the terrestrial to the moon, and the telestial to the stars. When resurrected all of God’s children, with the exception of the sons of perdition, will enter into one of the three degrees of glory. Only members of Christ true church will be eligible to enter into the celestial glory. Yet, in D&C 76:71-80 we learn that members of Christ true church will also be found in the terrestrial kingdom.[1]

Why will some members of the church be found in the terrestrial kingdom while others will receive an inheritance in the celestial kingdom? The answer provides an opportunity for some interesting doctrinal discovery.

A Parable for the Saints

Consider the parable of the ten virgins. All ten are waiting for the coming of the Lord (the bridegroom) with the expectation of meeting Him. All ten virgins are outwardly worthy, active church members.

However, the scriptures identify five as being wise and five as being foolish. Each virgin has a lamp, but only five have oil for their lamps—these five are the wise virgins. The other five, who lack oil for their lamps, are the foolish virgins. When the bridegroom comes at an unexpected hour, all ten are slumbering or sleeping. As all arise and trim their lamps the foolish virgins find that their lamps have gone out. They attempt to borrow oil from the wise virgins but are appropriately turned down.

“And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut” (Matthew 25:10). Later, the foolish virgins seek to enter saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us” (vs. 11). But the Lord refuses, saying, “I know you not”. The anticipated, expected, and hoped for blessing of receiving an inheritance in the celestial kingdom is denied.

The cry, “Lord, Lord”, is repeated in other scriptural accounts by church members who plead to obtain that which the Lord, in his justice, is required to deny them. When the time of preparation is past, no amount of pleading will change the circumstances. Those who procrastinate the day of repentance until it is everlastingly too late, will join the chorus of those who howl, weep, wail and gnash their teeth (see Mosiah 16:2).

As Joseph Smith said: The disappointment of hopes and expectations at the resurrection would be indescribably dreadful. Even those who hold important positions in the Lord’s church–bishops, stake presidents, relief society presidents, patriarchs, and even general authorities could find themselves without oil for their lamps at the critical time. “Many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name; and in thy name cast out devils; and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I say, Ye never knew me; depart from me ye that work iniquity.” (Inspired Version, Matthew 7:22-23). [2]

The disappointment of receiving a terrestrial glory when a celestial inheritance was expected will be indescribably dreadful.

To those who seek the Lord, the idea that they could be shut out from His presence and hear Him say, “Ye never knew me” is beyond their comprehension. President Spencer W. Kimball said, “The Lord has given us this parable [the parable of the ten virgins] as a special warning” (Faith Precedes the Miracle, p. 254).

What did the foolish virgins (members of the church) lack? The Lord revealed the key to understanding the parable of the ten virgins to the Prophet Joseph Smith: “And at that day, when I shall come in my glory, shall the parable be fulfilled which I spake concerning the ten virgins. For they that are wise and have received the truth, and have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide, and have not been deceived—verily I say unto you, they shall not be hewn down and cast into the fire, but shall abide the day.” (D&C 45:56-57.)

The Lord describes those whom he considers wise in verse 57. The wise have, “received the truth”, have “taken the Holy Spirit for their guide,” and “have not been deceived.” Conversely, we might define the foolish as those who have received not the truth, have not taken the Holy Spirit for their guide, and have been deceived.

The Lord will likewise judge the Latter-day Saints, and even though they live in the same neighborhood, attend the same ward, read from the same scriptures, attend the same Sunday School class, and so forth, some will be judged wise and some will be judged foolish. Why? Because “the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

In the Church but Not of It

Elder James E. Talmage explains that the lamp each virgin possessed represents “the outward profession of Christian belief and practice” (Jesus the Christ, p. 579).

In other words, the virgins are all active church members. The presence or absence of oil, which other men cannot discern, represents the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Although all ten virgins are outwardly active in the church, only five have truly embraced the gospel.

President Ezra Taft Benson described the idea of being in the Church but not partaking of the fruits thereof this way: In the usual sense of the term, Church membership means that a person has his or her name officially recorded on the membership records of the Church. By that definition, we have more than six million members of the Church. [He said this in 1989].

But the Lord defines a member of His kingdom in quite a different way. In 1828, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, He said, “Behold, this is my doctrine–whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.” (D&C 10:67; italics added.) To Him whose Church this is, membership involves far more than simply being a member of record. [Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, October 1989, p. 2.]

Paul described this foolish group of Saints as, “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5). These are church members who never fully repented and come unto the Lord (in His way), or, were unable to endure in righteousness. Jesus used the parable of the ten virgins, the sower, the pharisee and publican, and the gospel net to illustrate that not all who say, “Lord, Lord” will be received into the celestial kingdom.

All of these parables share a common theme: a separation will occur within the church among those who profess to be followers of Christ. The wise will be separated from the foolish, the wheat from the tares, the righteous from the wicked. Church membership, callings, activity, and bearing testimony, are alone not enough for eternal salvation in the Celestial kingdom. The Lord said “Whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church” (D&C 10:67). Church members who attain a form of godliness, but not the power must inherit another kingdom than the celestial.

Repentance: the World’s Way

We live in a day when self-help books are very popular. In fact bookstores and libraries overflow with books designed to help us improve ourselves. They offer many useful techniques and tips to help us gain control of various aspects of our lives, be it weight, self-esteem, vocabulary, appearance, or finances. One book even promised to change every aspect: “How to take immediate control of your mental, emotional, physical and financial destiny!”

In a sense, these books are books about repentance—repentance in the world’s way. It is true that by applying willpower and self-discipline we can reform our behavior, which can open the door to a new life. But the Lord’s way to change behavior is through sincere repentance.

Some members of the Church confuse the world’s method of reforming behavior for repentance. Although repentance and reformation are related, reformation can be accomplished without faith in Christ. President Ezra Taft Benson explained the difference when he said:

Repentance means more than simply a reformation of behavior. Many men and women in the world demonstrate great willpower and self-discipline in overcoming bad habits and the weaknesses of the flesh. Yet at the same time they give no thought to the Master, sometimes even openly rejecting Him. Such changes of behavior, even if in a positive direction, do not constitute true repentance. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which sincere and meaningful repentance must be built. If we truly seek to put away sin, we must first look to Him who is the Author of our salvation. [Ensign, October 1989, p. 2.]

Repentance: the Lord’s Way

Alma pleaded with his son to repent and forsake his sins when he said, “Now my son, I would that ye should repent and forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself in all these things” (Alma 39:9).

Alma’s counsel to “cross yourself” meant to reform himself through self-mastery, and stop doing what was contrary to the will of the Lord. This is a required step to obtain repentance. As we exercise our will to stop sinning and call on the Lord for help, we can have faith in Christ’s ability to help us change. He is our advocate “who knoweth the weakness of man and how to succor them who are tempted”. (D&C 62:1). What a joyful thought to know that the Savior understands our weaknesses and will help us overcome our temptations!

It is not uncommon for people trying to reform their lives to be drawn back into the habits they are trying to conquer. A person once involved in immorality, drug abuse, or pornography, for example, will find the gravity of habit pulling him or her back to that same lifestyle. The Lord knows how to succor those who are so tempted.

Succor is a tender word; it means to give help in time of need. Those who have received the Lord’s help in such times of need understand His love in a special way. If we are sincere in our desires to renounce sin, our advocate, friend, and brother—the Savior of the world, even our personal Savior—has promised us He will succor us and forgive us of our trespasses as many times as it takes for us to break away from our sins, provided we are sincere. (See Mosiah 26:29-30.)

Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation of repentance. The Nephite prophet Aaron taught that since man had fallen he could not repent in and of himself. (Alma 22:14) Men and women must relay on the mercy and merits and grace of Jesus Christ in order to repent. (2 Nephi 2:8)

Godly Sorrow: prerequisite for true repentance

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians distinguishes between “the sorrow of the world” and “Godly sorrow:” “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). The “sorrow of the world” Paul is referring to is unacceptable to God because it does not lead to salvation.

According to President Ezra Taft Benson: “It is not uncommon to find men and women in the world who feel remorse for the things they do wrong. Sometimes this is because their actions cause them or loved ones great sorrow and misery. Sometimes their sorrow is caused because they are caught and punished for their actions.” (Ensign, October 1989, p. 2.)

When we commit sin we not only break God’s law, but often man’s law as well. When we are brought to accountability before man’s law, the resulting loss of status, opportunity, wealth, and even freedom can be a crushing experience. The remorse that can follow is heartfelt and genuine, and many people of the world through self-mastery and determination make great improvements. However, this reformation, though praiseworthy, does not constitute “Godly sorrow”, the prerequisite for true repentance.

President Benson describes Godly sorrow as: “a gift of the Spirit. It is a deep realization that our actions have offended our Father and our God. It is the sharp and keen awareness that our behavior caused the Savior, He who knew no sin, even the greatest of all, to endure agony and suffering. Our sins caused Him to bleed at every pore.” (Ensign, October 1989, p. 2.)

Godly sorrow is a gift of the Spirit from God to the true followers of Christ. Those who receive this gift suffer “very real mental and spiritual anguish”. It is what the scriptures refer to as having a “broken heart and a contrite Spirit” (See 2 Nephi 2:7).

Such a Spirit is the absolute prerequisite for true repentance. One difference between the wise and foolish followers of Christ is whether they repent the world’s way or the Lord’s way. President Benson explained that “we must take our sins to the Lord in humble and sorrowful repentance. We must plead with Him for power to overcome them. The promises are sure. He will come to our aid. We will find the power to change our lives.” (Ensign, October 1989, p. 2.)


Reformation or self-improvement is a manifestation of our works; the gift of repentance is a manifestation of the Savior’s grace. Reformation changes our outward actions; the gift of repentance changes our heart. A reformed thief may be nothing more than a thief who is not currently stealing; a repentant thief abhors stealing.

President Benson said, “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.” (Ensign, October 1985, p. 6.)

By taking our sins to the Lord and pleading with Him for help, we’ll find power to change our lives. At the appropriate time, the Lord will grant us the gift of a broken heart and contrite spirit, which is the Godly sorrow we need to complete our repentance. (2 Nephi 2:7).

The difference between church members who receives an inheritance in the celestial kingdom and those who receive a terrestrial glory may hinge on their understanding and properly applying the principle of repentance, not just the principle of reformation. True followers of Christ understand that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which sincere and meaningful repentance must be built. Members not valiant in Christ never find the power to reach beyond the principle of reformation.

I’ll close with Moroni’s farewell words to the Gentiles: And now, I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever. Amen. (Ether 12:41).

[1] For more information see, A New Witness For The Articles Of Faith, P.146.[2] Some who read this will be shocked to think that this scripture could apply to the Latter-day Saints or their leaders. For more information on this idea see: Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah Vol. 2, P. 171-173; JD 20:22, 120-121, 161-163; 25:305-307.

Click here for Table of Contents

If you would like to comment on what you just read click here.


This entry was posted in Book: Alive in Christ, Repentance. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Exercising Willpower and Self-Discipline in Overcoming Bad Habits and Weakness of the Flesh Doesn’t Qualify As Repentance

  1. Blane says:

    Terestrial and telestial kingdoms, kingdoms of glory Or of damnation? In those kingdoms there is not a fulness of joy because there is not eternal increase in their posterity and eternal progression. I’ve heard it explained,”as a river is held back from progressing on its course when it is “damned” so are the souls who enter the lesser kingdoms.

Comments are closed.