Mormon beliefs teach that anyone who has reached the age of accountability, which is eight years of age, must confess his sins. However, not all sins must be confessed to an ecclesiastical leader.The process of repentance involves several steps. The first step is to have faith in God. Without faith, repentance is not possible, because the entire process is based on our faith in God. If a person who has sinned lacks faith, then strengthening that faith is part of the repentance process.
The next step is to feel sorrow for the sin. Repentance is meaningless is one is just going through the motions. Sorrow comes not from being caught, or from having to cope with the consequences of sin, but from having disobeyed God. When we love God, we want to please Him and to live the way He has asked us to. Repentance, then, is an act of love, not fear.
The second step is to ask forgiveness. This is where confession enters in. The sinner must confess his sin to those involved or hurt by it and then ask their forgiveness. Smaller sins may be handled without ecclesiastical intervention. The person who has transgressed can simply go to the people involved and apologize.
For example, if a parent has lost her temper with her children, she would apologize to both her children and to God. Someone who broke an important piece of equipment at work would need to confess to his employer and to God. Someone who gave a speech that harmed their company would need to apologize to anyone who might have heard the speech, as well as God. The more public the sin, the more public the repentance process must be.
Sins which can affect a person’s church membership, such as violations to the law of chastity, or intentionally working to harm God’s church, require the assistance of a church leader, beginning with the bishop. A Mormon bishop is similar to a pastor or minister. The church leader cannot forgive your sins. Only God can do that. The church leader’s role is to guide the process. The sin and the repentance process are kept private unless the sinner himself chooses to violate that privacy and misrepresents what the church has done during the repentance process. In that case, it may be decided that the church can clarify the information, since the sinner himself first spoke publicly of the situation.
Finally, the person is required to forsake the sin forever. This is, of course, the most challenging step, but it is proof that the repentance was sincere and complete. Mormons are taught they can’t simply sin with a plan to follow up with repentance. This is not sincere repentance and mocks the atonement, which makes repentance possible.
Mormon beliefs teach that if the Savior had not been willing to do what He did for us, we would have been unable to return to God’s presence. No one but the Savior could live a sinless life or carry out the atonement. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the Jesus Christ took on Himself each sin that had been committed previously and every sin that would be committed in the future. He atoned for each one, and for each of us individually. He then sealed that atonement with His voluntary death on the cross. It would not have been possible for His enemies to kill Him had He chosen not to die. That He did choose both the very painful atoning process, and the death on the cross, is His greatest gift to us. That God sent Jesus, knowing what would happen, and didn’t stop the process, even though it must have been painful to allow it to happen, is God’s greatest gift to us.
To the Mormons then, confession is one stage of a longer repentance process, and how it is done depends on the nature of the sin and who is affected.