If we want to be saved, we must confess our sins and repent.
Confessing sins is to recognize things that are evil, see them within ourselves, acknowledge them, accept that we are at fault, and condemn ourselves because of them. When this is done in the presence of God, it is confessing our sins.
After we have confessed our sins in this way and have prayed for forgiveness with a humble heart, repenting is to stop doing them and to lead a new life that follows the principles of caring and faith.
If all we do is make a blanket acknowledgment that we are sinners and declare ourselves guilty of all evils but without examining ourselves—that is, seeing our own particular evils—we are making some kind of confession, but not a confession that leads to repentance. Since we do not know what our evils are, we live the same way afterward as before.
If we are leading a life of caring and faith we repent every day. We reflect on the evils in ourselves, acknowledge them, take precautions against them, and pray to the Lord for help. You see, on our own we are constantly falling down, but the Lord is constantly raising us up and leading us toward goodness. This is our state if we devote our lives to doing good. If we spend our lives doing evil, then too we are constantly falling down and the Lord is constantly lifting us up, but the result is only that we are steered away from falling into those most serious evils to which we instinctively tend with all our might.
If we are practicing self-examination in order to repent, it is important that we examine our thoughts and the intentions of our will, and note what we would do if we could get away with it—that is, if we had no fear of the law or of losing our reputation, our job, or our wealth. Our evils live in our will; that is the source of all the evil things we do physically. Therefore if we do not search out evils in our thoughts and our will, we will be unable to repent, because afterward we will have the same thoughts and intentions as we had before; and intending evils is the same as doing them. This therefore is what self-examination entails.
Saying that we repent but not changing the way we live is no repentance at all. Our sins are not forgiven when we say we repent; they are forgiven when we change our lives. Our sins are of course constantly being forgiven by the Lord, because he is mercy itself. Nevertheless, despite what we may think about how our sins are forgiven, they actually still cling to us and are not put aside from us unless we live by the precepts of true faith. As we live by these precepts our sins are put aside, and as our sins are put aside they are forgiven.
People believe that when our sins are forgiven they are washed away or rinsed off the way dirt is rinsed off with water. However, our sins are not washed away; they are just put aside. That is, we are held back from doing them when we are kept focused by the Lord on doing what is good; and when we are focused on doing good it seems as though our sins are gone and therefore as though they have been washed away. Further, the more we have been reformed, the more capable we are of focusing on doing what is good; how we are reformed will be explained in the treatment of regeneration that follows [Sections 173–186]. If we think that our sins are forgiven in any other way, we are sadly mistaken.
Some signs that our sins have been forgiven (that is, put aside) are the following: we sense a pleasure in worshiping God for God’s sake and in helping our neighbor for our neighbor’s sake, which means in doing good for its own sake and in speaking truth for its own sake. We do not want credit for our caring or our faith. We reject and turn our backs on evils like enmity, hatred, vindictiveness, adultery, and even the very thoughts that go along with intentions in such directions.
In contrast, some signs that our sins have not been forgiven (that is, put aside) are the following: we worship God but not for God’s sake, we help our neighbor but not for our neighbor’s sake, which means that we do not do good for its own sake or speak truth for its own sake but for self-serving and worldly reasons. We want credit for what we do. We do not find evils like enmity, hatred, vindictiveness, and adultery at all distasteful, and entertain these evils in our thoughts with a complete lack of restraint.
When we repent in a state of freedom, it works; when we repent under duress, it does not. The following are states of duress: a state of sickness, a state of mental depression because of misfortune, a state in which death seems imminent, as well as any state of fear that robs us of the use of reason. Sometimes people who are evil and are in a state of duress do things that are good and make promises to repent, but when they find themselves in a state of freedom they return to their old life of evil. It is different for people who are good.
After we have examined ourselves, acknowledged our sins, and repented of them, we must for the rest of our lives remain constant in our devotion to doing what is good. If instead we backslide into our former evil life and embrace it again, then we commit profanation because we are then joining evil and goodness together. This makes our latter state worse than our former one, according to the Lord’s words:
When an unclean spirit goes out of someone, it wanders through dry places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, “I will go back to my house, the house I left.” When the spirit comes and finds the house empty, swept, and decorated for it, then it goes and recruits seven other spirits worse than itself, and they come in and live there, and the latter times of that person become worse than the first. (Matthew 12:43, 44, 45)
from New Jerusalem, Sections 159-169