“For by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
Death is universal. Death is common to all creation. Death is human and of the Fall. Death is individual—each person must grapple with the death inherent in each act, while completely ineffectual at expulsing it therefrom. There is a fundamental, absolute Otherness of God and the world, the latter disparate even in itself. Sin—the Fall—is the frame of reference in which all human questions are posed.
We must realize that all things must pass away, heaven and earth and the soul of man: “death hath passed upon all men” (2 Nephi 9:6). This world is death and this world is sin, but this death is required and ordained. For there to be at-one-ment, there must be at-odds-ment.
For it must … be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must … be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must … remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. •Wherefore, it must … have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must … destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.
•And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there [is] no righteousness there [is] no happiness. And if there [is] no righteousness nor happiness there [is] no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.
… •There is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon. •And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, … it must … be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter (2 Nephi 2:11–15).
Repentance is another broad and difficult word to use, fraught with metaphor and abuse. It is often described as a turning-away from sin and death. This definition is negative, however, and does not illuminate—it would leave the house swept clean, fit for seven devils to return! Repentance is a turning-towards, a turning towards God, a turning towards faith, a turning towards Atonement, a turning towards at-one-ment. It is the window through which redemption occurs; in the context of the Fall, it is the window also through which quickening occurs.
Repentance is the ignition of love where once was loathing, “… the only door out of the dungeon of self” (MacDonald, Love Thy Neighbor). The new creature is born through the Atonement, the old succumbing and passing through death. It is disingenuous to refer to repentance of a specific act, or a specific attitude; rather, repentance requires the rebirth of the entire soul and a net progression forwards. Repentance is of all our sins—of sin, to be exact. It is crucifixion of the old man and embrace of the new.
An existential understanding of God’s outstretched arm also enlightens us to better comprehend the motivation of the institutionalized steps of repentance. Godly sorrow is a fruit of true faith. Restitution is the outward token of an inward change. And by confession, we stand voluntarily condemned before God. We acknowledge that his judgment and wrath are just, and pray for his mercy through Christ (unmerited by us, but nevertheless freely offered to us).
The reason that we feel guilt and shame is a sense of continuity with the sin—we are still the same being who was capable of that breach. The only discontinuity of which we know is death, but the death through which we must pass must not be confounded with any human death, which is only a parable or type. It is only ours to not resist this death when God wishes for it to pass upon us, and over us, and away with us—as a castle of sand in the ceaseless surf. The exhortation towards death in this work cannot be conceived of otherwise than as an invitation to let God work in our lives—already his province, but we fancy ourselves sovereign, like a certain people who would “not have this man to reign over us” (AVLuke 19:12–14).
Neal A. Maxwell reminds us that the natural man should not be held onto “because of a mistaken sense that the natural man constitutes our individuality. …What we now defensively regard as constituting individuality is likely to be significantly refined” (Maxwell, The Inexhaustible Gospel, 200). Furthermore,
Death is not the permanent annihilation of the human personality and individuality! President Brigham Young wisely declared that the preservation of human intelligence and individuality through the Atonement and resurrection ‘is the greatest gift that ever was bestowed on mankind’ (Maxwell, “‘Shine As Lights in the World’,” Ensign, May 1983, 9.).
What is worth preserving will be preserved—we need have no fear that God will waste creation! No human change or action is sufficient in itself, but that the overarching Atonement must pierce and break it for it to be effectual. “When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship). To take up the cross daily is to daily set foot upon the path that lead inexorably to Golgotha—but thence to the garden tomb!
And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast? • … Can ye say aught of yourselves? … Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you (Mosiah 2:24–25).
All things pass through death and are redeemed—only the unworthy return though the gate to oblivion. Repentance is the death of death, and the sprouting of the corn of wheat within us.