During my 5 years serving as a bishop, like every other bishop, I had countless interactions with individuals in my ward where I felt it necessary to restrict the sacrament or other ordinances for a time as they were going through “the repentance process.” This process of restricting the sacrament (and other ordinances) might take place so many times that it soon feels like sour spiritual paperwork that must be done because the handbook says so. All too often individuals leave the bishop’s office misunderstanding the purpose of why such a restriction of ordinances was placed on them. The moment the bishop instructs the transgressor to remain under spiritual probation is pivotal. If the bishop doesn’t take a moment to fully explain to them the purpose for the restriction they will begin to fill in the blanks with the help of the Adversary and hear a message of shame which will halt any progress towards repentance. If the leader doesn’t fully understand why it is happening then those under the restriction will definitely not know why.
I received an email from a bishop who was recently driving home from a long trip. He was pondering over his ward and the names of specific members he interacts with. Suddenly this question came to his mind: “What do members think is the reason behind a restriction on partaking of the sacrament?” He realized he never explains the reason behind it but only assumes the transgressor knows it is coming because that’s generally how things are done in the bishop’s office.
I took this question to the Leading Saints community and was surprised to see the varying opinions about the main purpose of restricting the sacrament. They suggested reasons for the sacramental restriction including:
- The bishop is protecting the person from condemnation and protecting the sanctity of the sacrament (3 Nephi 18:28-29)
- It’s a wake up call to the transgressor to change and return to the path of righteousness
- It doesn’t make sense to renew a covenant they aren’t keeping
All of these reasons are not surprising to anyone that understands the basic doctrine of repentance and they are all mostly accurate, but these reasons alone are not helpful to the individual wanting to repent. LDS.org defines repentance as:
A change of mind and heart that gives us a fresh view about God, about ourselves, and about the world. It includes turning away from sin and turning to God for forgiveness. It is motivated by love for God and the sincere desire to obey His commandments.
In short, repentance is about change and not punishment.
With that definition in mind let’s reconsider the common reasons listed above.
Is the reason for restricting the sacrament to protect the transgressor from a vengeful God that is seeking to condemn the sinner? As we learn in 3 Nephi 18, partaking of the sacrament unworthily will bring us condemnation, but that is for those that are unrepentant, and if someone is unrepentant they are probably not in the bishops office seeking to reconcile their sins.
Elder John H. Groberg talked about this in his 1989 General Conference talk:
What does it mean to partake of the sacrament worthily? Or how do we know if we are unworthy?
If we desire to improve (which is to repent) and are not under priesthood restriction, then, in my opinion, we are worthy. If, however, we have no desire to improve, if we have no intention of following the guidance of the Spirit, we must ask: Are we worthy to partake, or are we making a mockery of the very purpose of the sacrament, which is to act as a catalyst for personal repentance and improvement? If we remember the Savior and all he has done and will do for us, we will improve our actions and thus come closer to him, which keeps us on the road to eternal life.
So if bishops are only restricting the sacrament from individuals to protect them from condemnation that message can easily cast shame on the transgressor; what they have done has, in a sense, angered God and he is coming for them to deliver hard justice. “Hurry and hide behind the bishop and he will protect you from condemnation.” The adversary is the only one who tells us to “hide”.
The bishop must restrict the sacrament in order to give the transgressor a wake up call so they know how serious their sin is. This is incorrect. From the LDS.org definition of repentance mentioned above, repentance is about change, not about punishment. Yes, the guilt one feels from sin can be very motivating and propel someone towards change. To do this, they assume, they must skip the sacrament as a form of spiritual “time-out” until they “learn their lesson.” This position again only shames the individual into change when Christ only motivates through love. They should never want to repent because they think they are a broken sinner, they should only want to change because they love the Savior so much and want to keep His commandments.
It doesn’t make sense to renew a covenant through an ordinance if they aren’t keeping the ordinance. This is a logical argument and I guess it is correct, but in such an emotional process of repentance this logical position is not helpful to the transgressor seeking change. “Well, thanks for letting me know you sinned, I guess it wouldn’t make sense for you to take the sacrament so let’s skip that for awhile.” In other words the leader is again communicating they are broken (shame) and this logic provides no message of love to help them want to change.
So these three reason are “accurate” but if a bishop leads with these reasons they will only leave the individual feeling shameful and deserving of punishment.
To truly articulate to the transgressor a message of love that will propel them towards change two important principles must be understood: (1) Repentance is not about punishing the transgressor and (2) The Law of Justification and Sanctification.
Justification vs. Sanctification
The purpose of our mortal journey is not only to cleanse us of sin through the Savior’s Atonement so that we can return to the presence of our Father in Heaven. If it was the only purpose why would we have left His presence and started sinning in the first place? The purpose of this life can be boiled down to two basic points: (1) to justify or cleanse ourselves from sin through Christ, (2) to be sanctified and become more like our Father in Heaven so that when we return to Him we will be ready to continue our progression. This doctrine is all throughout the scriptures when we hear phrases like “bless and sanctify” (sacramental prayer), “pure heart and clean hands” (Alma 5:19, 21, 24), and is regularly being referenced during General Conference (here’s an example from Elder Bednar). It is really the simplest way to describe the purpose of Christ’s Atonement; to cleanse us and to sanctify us.
With that said, when an individual steps into a priesthood leaders office with the intent to repent they are there to rectify that two fold purpose of justifying their sins and sanctifying their heart. In the context of this article whenever the word justification or justify is used it does not mean they are wanting to show they were not in the wrong when they sinned. To justify sin through Christ means to make equal, to make good again, or to pay the debt. To sanctify the individual is to make holy, saintly, or more like our Father in Heaven. Many leaders and individuals make the mistake that the repentance process is only about paying for the sin, or justifying the sin (punishment). This perspective can confuse the purpose of restricting ordinances because if that bishop’s office meeting is only about how to pay for sin then the focus goes to how the transgressor will pay for the sin. By keeping the focus on how Christ suffered for their sins, then that invites a message of love, which leads to change.
So are you saying an individual shouldn’t feel bad or suffer during the repentance process? Repentance is definitely no walk-in-the-park. It often hurts as you see how your actions have hurt others, hurt yourself, or caused consequences that aren’t immediately reversible. But it is important to understand that personal suffering during repentance isn’t for the purpose of an individual paying for their sins. Paying for sin was Christ’s role and “His Grace is sufficient” (2 Cor. 12:9) to pay for 100% of the sin. Here we can see how important it is to make this clarification with the transgressor that any suffering or restriction is not for the purpose of paying for the sin; rather, it is for the purpose of changing their actions in order to continue down the path of sanctification; or helping them become more like God.
For the sake of being clear, allow me to restate this point with other words: When we ask for forgiveness we are asking for justification, when we seek repentance we are working towards sanctification. Forgiveness and repentance are not the same; forgiveness is an event, repentance is a process we repeat everyday. Just like Jesus Christ is a Savior (justification) and a Redeemer (sanctification), forgiveness comes immediately when we sincerely ask for it. And repentance changes us overtime as we enable the Atonement of Jesus Christ in our life. The big misunderstanding made by priesthood leaders or transgressors is to assume they are meeting together to only justify the sin, “Get it over with, bishop! I’ll skip the sacrament for 6 weeks and then let’s move on with our lives.” Neither is the point of the appointment to put the transgressor through a “repentance process” so that together you can win the Savior’s forgiveness. “Let’s have you skip that sacrament for 6 weeks and maybe the Savior will have forgiven you by then for your awful mistake.” That is misunderstanding the process and casts shame on the individual striving to repent (moving away from a message of love). It would be more appropriate to say, “Isn’t it wonderful that the Savior has forgiven you! Now, let’s work together by getting any habits or addiction under control so that you can once again renew your covenants through the sacrament and receive His sanctification.”
In Exodus 12:43 it states, “And the Lord said unto Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof: But every man’s servant that is bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof.” When we sin we become strangers to the Lord, and as strangers we cannot “eat thereof” with the Lord until we have circumcised (or sanctified) our hearts and returned to Him. Just like an individual being interviewed for baptism isn’t being punished for their past sins so that they can be baptized, an individual confessing in a bishop’s office isn’t being punished but encouraged to sanctify their heart and change. In 3 Nephi 9:20 we learn that the Savior only requires “a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” He does not require an individual to suffer long enough so that His suffering and sacrifice can begin. His grace is sufficient and He will take 100% accountability for our wrongdoings! So when an individuals has been restricted from the sacrament they need to remember that they are only required to bring a broken heart to sacrament meeting rather than a clean report card. If they wait until they don’t feel like a sinner anymore (justification), they will never make it to the altars of redemption (sanctification).