The Lord Jesus laid great stress upon the subject of repentance when He declared, “Except ye repent ye shall all likewise perish” Lk.13.3. With similar emphasis Paul, preaching on Mars’ Hill, said “God … now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” Acts 17.30. In fact, in the book of the Acts repentance is prominent in the preaching of all the Lord’s servants. Because of the biblical emphasis on the subject, it is important that we understand correctly what the Bible means by its use of the word repent in its various forms. There are conflicting views as to what repentance is, which adds to the confusion in the mind of an interested seeker of the truth.
The biblical doctrine of repentance forms the vital bridge between sin and forgiveness. There is no way to obtain forgiveness for sins other than by repentance. Sin is a very popular subject: none other is more discussed, dearly loved or practised by the human race. It transcends every barrier known to mankind: racial, geographical, social, or religious. Sadly, many commit sins without any regard for a holy God Who places demands upon His creatures: they feel no accountability towards Him. Others, who do feel their accountability to God, try to exercise some moral restraint in their lives. Those who read or know the Bible are aware to some degree of what God calls sin. The only accurate source of information about sin and its consequences is the Word of God. If people did not commit sins, there would be no need for repentance. But sins are all around us every day, and without repentance there can be no deliverance from their deadly effects. Every sin, of whatever magnitude, is a serious affront to God. Yet God, Who is so grievously offended by our sins, has devised a means by which sins can be forgiven. This is where repentance fits into the scheme of Divine blessing. Repentance is essential to forgiveness, so we must accept God’s demand for it and the Bible’s definition of it.
WHAT IS REPENTANCE?
Repentance appears in both the Old and New Testaments, mainly in the following words:
Nachan (Ex.13.17) to sigh / breathe deeply. Signifies to lament or grieve.
Shuwb (1Kgs.8.47) to retreat / turn back.
Metanoia (Matt.3.8) to change the mind.
Metanoeo (Matt.3.2) to think differently afterwards.
Whether in noun or verb, the predominant idea of repentance in the Bible is to think afterwards or reconsider. It is worth noting that this reconsideration is not always with regards to sin but is sometimes a change of mind in relation to a course of action, Gen.6.6; Ex.13.17. However, over the centuries an amalgamation of ideas and confusion over translation led to the subjective idea of regret or feeling sorry for sins committed. The Latin Fathers translated Metanoia as Paenitentia, which came to mean penitence, or acts of penance. Thus the biblical doctrine of repentance became clouded and confused to such an extent that it was brought into outright error, and sinners were told to feel sorry and perform acts of penance to gain forgiveness for their sins. In true repentance, there is an element of remorse for sins that leads to a definite change of attitude and action. But the activity associated with repentance is not a religious duty to make reparation for sins. Rather, it is a change of mind about sinful deeds that brings them to an immediate end. The fundamental New Testament concept of repentance is a change of mind with regard to sins. That change of mind will result in a manner of life in harmony with the attitude to sin in Matt.3.8, “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance”. However, turning away from sin is not enough for salvation; there must also be a turning to Christ in faith, as declared by Paul in Acts 20.21, “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ”.
THE PRIORITY OF REPENTANCE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
A careful reader of the New Testament could not miss the priority given to the subject of repentance.
John The Baptist
Matt.3.1,2 records John’s message and gives repentance prime position by putting it first in the sentence. “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John’s preaching of repentance was the fulfilment of the angel’s promise given to Zacharias his father before he was born. “But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God” Lk.1.13,16. His ministry of turning many to the Lord was seen in their repentance, they had second thoughts about their sin and God’s demands upon their lives.
The Lord Jesus Christ
Mk.1.14, “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” The close similarity between the preaching of John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus should be noted. Repentance is linked to the kingdom by both, but the Lord Jesus now introduces the additional concept of faith in the words “repent ye and believe the gospel”. Presently there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of Satan. One is characterised by righteousness, light, and Christ; the other is characterised by evil, darkness, and Satan. Citizenship in a kingdom is procured by being born into it. We have been born into the kingdom of this world, and by nature our character is evil and unrighteous. Those who are saved have been born into the kingdom of God, and now have a nature that manifests light and righteousness. New birth is by the Holy Spirit, Jn.3.3, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” and is the result of faith alone, Jn.3.15, “That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life”.
We must be clear that repentance is not the means of entry into the kingdom of God; it is the sinner’s renunciation of the kingdom in which sin reigns. As a citizen of that evil kingdom we are not fit to be subjects of the kingdom of righteousness; we must renounce our sins. Repentance of sins and faith in Christ as Saviour are simultaneous. Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin, or the two feet of the one step of conversion. As well as being the first theme in the preaching of the Lord Jesus, repentance was also the final theme in His preaching. After His resurrection, He was speaking to His disciples and “then opened He their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” Lk.24.45-47.
In Mk.6.12 we have the record of the twelve being sent out to preach, “And they went out, and preached that men should repent”. The priority of their preaching was exactly the same as the Lord Jesus, Who had superseded the preaching of repentance by His forerunner, John the Baptist. They followed all God-sent preachers with their clear message of repentance, which also was linked to an announcement of the kingdom, “And as ye go, preach, saying, the kingdom of heaven is at hand” Matt.10.7.
The Apostle Peter
On the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, Peter preached the first message of this present dispensation of grace. His message was plain, pointed, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to the extent that his hearers were pierced to the heart, and they asked “What shall we do?” Acts 2.37. Peter’s reply was prefaced with the all-important word, repent. “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” Acts 2.38. Later, as Peter and John went to the Temple to pray, they healed a lame man, and there was quite a stir among the onlookers. Their curiosity and amazement gave an opportunity for Peter to preach the gospel, and as he did so he said, “repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” Acts 3.19. Towards the close of Peter’s ministry in the New Testament we get his last mention of the same theme, in 2 Pet.3.9, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”. Throughout his life of useful service as a preacher of the gospel, Peter’s message did not change. Likewise, it will remain the same right until the end of the age.
The Apostle Paul
While preaching on Mars’ Hill, Paul demonstrates the ignorance of unregenerate man’s heart, and says, “the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” Acts 17.30. The response in the hearts of some to his message was that of faith, “Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them” Acts 17.34. Later, when Paul gathers the elders from Ephesus to Miletus, he recounts his life and ministry in Asia. He tells them how he “kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” Acts 20.20,21. In Rom.2.3,4, Paul writes, “and thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” The goodness and kindness of God ought to cause the sinner to re-think his attitude to God, and his sin against God.
The Apostle John
John does not mention repentance in either his gospel or his epistles, but he does relay the message of repentance from the Risen Christ to five of the seven local assemblies in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. For them, repentance is not to gain admission into the kingdom by way of salvation, but it is for forgiveness from sins nonetheless. Forgiveness for either a saint or a sinner demands repentance, and a turning away from sin.
THE LINK BETWEEN REPENTANCE AND FAITH
In what way are repentance and faith linked? Which of the two is more important? Does one lead to the other? Questions like these have occupied the minds of teachers and commentators for centuries. Some have made the emphasis on one being more important than the other; and thereby controversy and confusion have reigned where there should have been clarity and conviction. To pit one truth against the other, or prioritise one above the other, is to miss the thrust of Scripture. Both truths are inseparably brought together in the experience of conversion. True repentance is closely linked to true faith – neither stands alone. The sinner cannot turn from sin to nothing; otherwise it is not true repentance. Nor can the sinner turn to God in true faith without changing his mind about sin; otherwise it is not true faith. It is necessary to turn from in order to turn to. When a sinner repents, he turns from self and sin; and when he trusts Christ, he relies fully upon Him as Saviour. Turning from sin without trusting Christ is only reformation; and turning to Christ without repentance is nothing more than religious emotionalism.
There are some individual verses that mention only repentance, or only faith in Christ. Does that mean that a sinner can get saved only by repentance, without faith in Christ? Or do some verses mean that a sinner gets saved only by faith in Christ, without repentance? If we adopt that reasoning, then the Bible presents two ways of salvation – one by faith alone, and the other by repentance alone! But this is not the case, and we must pay attention to the whole tenor of the Scriptures in their teaching on salvation. The Saviour’s words, “repent ye, and believe the gospel” Mk.1.15, and the Apostle Paul’s classic statement, “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” Acts 20.21, draw both concepts together, because both are essential for salvation. As mentioned earlier, they are the two feet necessary for the one step of conversion, which brings a sinner out of darkness into light. Where only faith is mentioned, the context will reveal why its twin truth of repentance is omitted, and vice versa. For instance, in Acts 16.30,31, the Jailer trembled and asked “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved”. Why no mention of repentance? The Apostle could see that the Jailer had obviously been affected by his sin, and was deeply convicted about it, so there was no need to give him instructions about turning from his sin – the Holy Spirit had already shown him the depravity of his heart. Hence the cry, “What must I do to be saved?” He wanted to be saved from the awful plague and punishment of his sin.
SOME OBSERVATIONS ON REPENTANCE
Since true repentance and true faith are both required for salvation, it is no surprise that Satan tries to subvert the genuine seeker. He is the master of counterfeit and has managed to delude many into accepting common errors on the subject of repentance. The ultimate personal tragedy is to stake one’s eternal salvation on an error propagated by Satan, so we will briefly identify some of the common mistakes made in relation to repentance.
Reformation of Life is Not Repentance
A sense of moral responsibility leads many, irrespective of any, or no religious beliefs, to want to live a better life. Many who deny the Bible have an innate desire to be a better person. Consequently, they drop some of their undesirable habits and, to some extent, manage to improve their behaviour. Anyone can ‘turn over a new leaf’ and to drop a few sins here and there along the journey of life does not require the help of God, but it still does not make the sinner a better person. No matter how much people try to reform their character, it is not repentance.
Regret is Not Repentance
One of the earliest lessons that the author can recall from his school days is being taught that repentance means being sorry for your sins. Whilst it is true that there is very definite sorrow for sins in every case of repentance, it is possible to be filled with sorrow and yet not repent of the sin at all. Sometimes the sorrow is for the consequences and not the sins. Often the sorrow is because a particular sin has been exposed, and the person concerned is deeply embarrassed. In 2 Cor.7.10, Paul shows us the role of sorrow in repentance: “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” Sorrow brings about repentance but it is not a substitute for it.
Penance is Not Repentance
For many, sorrow for sins creates a deep longing to do something to make amends, and to afflict oneself for that sin. By the Fifteenth Century, the Church of Rome had introduced the sacrament of penance as formal doctrine and practice. This horrible error plays on the heart of those who feel the need to do something about their sins. It teaches that by contrition, confession and castigation of self, one is a fit candidate to be granted absolution by the priest. Even the Scribes in the Lord’s day, who were the inveterate enemies of the Saviour, knew better when they asked, “Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?” Mk.2.7. The Douay-Rheims translation of the Scriptures by the Roman Catholic Church replaces the word ‘penance’ for ‘repentance.’ This endorses their gross error that has been responsible for leading millions into a life of good works to try to obtain forgiveness and heaven. Penance is like regret, it fails to address the standing of a sinner before God – guilty and depraved. Regret elevates the sinner to think that, by sufficient sorrow, he can atone for his sins. Penance elevates the Church and its priests to think that they can provide forgiveness. Both are fundamental errors that deny the very core of the gospel message of forgiveness by the grace of God alone. There is no Scriptural foundation for the notion of penance. The Bible states plainly that salvation is by the grace of God alone, on the basis of faith alone, in Christ alone. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” Eph.2.8,9. “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” Titus 3.4,5 Forgiveness cannot be bought with good deeds, indulgences, or money.
Repentance is Both a Single Action and a Continual Attitude
When a person is convicted of a particular sin, there is a demand for the immediate turning away from that sin. But, in addition to that act of repentance for an act of sin, there is also the need for an attitude of repentance in relation to his or her attitude towards sin. At conversion, an initial act of repentance and faith in Christ leads into a continual attitude of faith and repentance. With some there appears to be a repeated pattern of repenting, yet never being truly repentant – they keep returning to their old ways. True repentance demands a permanent turn around, a complete change of direction that manifests itself in a changed lifestyle.
Repentance Involves Turning From What I am and What I Have Done
After Nathan the Prophet confronted David about his sin and he gained forgiveness through repentance, David, in Psalm 51, wrote these words: “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me … Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me”. David was smitten with a sense of what he was, v.5, and a sense of what he had done, v.3. Hence his cry for mercy regarding what he did: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” v.7. His sins required cleansing and forgiveness, which could be granted by God alone. His conviction of sin also led to his declaration of what he was: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” v.10. The fact that he was a sinner also needed to be rectified by God: his inner man [‘heart’ and ‘spirit’] must be dealt with also. David acknowledged that every sin is the expression of a sinful nature. True repentance must go beyond an admission of what I have done: it must also include an acknowledgement of what I am – a sinner by birth and in nature. Repentance is having second thoughts about the root of sin as well as the fruit of sin. I no longer cherish and love my sins; but I also loathe what I am as a sinful person. Lying deep below sins are the roots of pride, self, and unbelief. These pernicious roots bear a variety of poisonous fruits, and until the roots are dealt with in repentance before God they will bear fruit profusely. This aspect of repentance challenges the very heart of post-modern thinking about man. Unregenerate man is lauded as the epitome of all that is good and worthy, and is expected to think high thoughts of self. Most life-improvement advice will include copious self-praise and various ways of improving self-esteem, but all this is foreign to the Holy Scripture’s concept of fallen man in need of forgiveness.
EVIDENCES OF REPENTANCE
In 2 Corinthians chapter 7 the Apostle Paul gives an analytical account of true repentance in the assembly at Corinth. In his first epistle he had written to them identifying their various sins, and declaring how they should deal with them. He says in 2 Cor.7.8,9 that his earlier letter had made them sorry and that he was glad about that: “For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season. Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.” He was not taking pleasure in the misery they felt when they had been brought under conviction by his first epistle; but he was glad that their sorrow had brought about their repentance. He also points out that there is a type of sorrow caused by sin that is experienced by the world; but which is not the result of conviction of sin. It is simply sorrow that is the consequence of sin and not by sin. There is a great difference! Whether it is the salvation of a sinner or the restoration of an erring Christian, there must be repentance, and both will carry the same hallmark. There are fundamental principles seen in every case of repentance: these are listed in 2 Cor.7.11, “For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” These seven principles, which are evidences of true repentance, are: Carefulness; clearing of yourselves; indignation; fear; vehement desire; zeal and revenge.
Carefulness [‘diligence’ J.N.D.]. The Corinthians were earnest in their repentance, they gave diligent attention to repentance of the sins they had committed. The sorrow of heart created by the Holy Spirit produced a determination to diligently and carefully put things right. Repentance cannot be light-hearted or slip shod.
Clearing of Yourselves [‘excusing yourselves’ J.N.D.]. Every trace of guilt must be removed – they wanted to be righteous. This was not self-defence, but putting things right so that no charge of their former sins could be sustained.
Indignation Godly sorrow had produced a deep-seated anger at their sins. Indignation speaks of being filled with wrath to the point of inconsolable grief. They became so aware of their own sinful actions that they hated their sin.
Fear When the seriousness of their sins gripped their souls, it produced a holy fear of the Lord and a revulsion of those sins. That fear would act as a preservative against further or repeated sin.
Vehement Desire [‘ardent desire’ J.N.D.]. As these foregoing features took hold in their hearts, they developed an ardent desire to correct the things that were wrong. They were in a hurry to repent and make changes. True repentance is not careless or lazy – it wants to rectify what is wrong as quickly as possible.
Zeal Zeal is putting that “ardent desire” into action. When they started to repent they got on with it and saw it through to the end; they did not stop half-way through. They searched out every sin and sought forgiveness thoroughly and completely.
Revenge [‘vengeance’ J.N.D.]. Their zeal led to revenge against themselves in the sense of putting everything in order, including meeting any demands for restitution that their sin may have caused.
Repentance at Corinth manifested itself in this sevenfold way, and resulted in them making changes to their behaviour so that no further charges could be laid against them.
HOW IS REPENTANCE AFFECTED?
Since repentance is so vital to forgiveness and blessing, how can it be produced? The Bible presents four vital principles for us to consider.
There Must be Conviction
If a person does not know that he is a sinner, there will be no feeling of need to do anything about it. If he is not convinced that he has committed sin, he will not see the necessity to repent. Conviction is that sense of personal need, created by an awareness of sin. In Romans chapter 1, Paul demonstrates that the heathen Gentiles are sinners because they are guilty of sin against God as He is revealed in creation and in their own consciences. In Romans chapter 2, he shows that the Jews who have the revelation of God as written in the Scriptures, have sinned against that. He then goes on, in 3.9, to ask, “What then? Are we [Jews] better than they [Gentiles]?” He supplies the answer, “No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin.” To corroborate his declaration of universal guilt in v.9, he proceeds in vv.10-18 to call on the Old Testament Scriptures as witness to the charges.
“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:
There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.
They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable;
there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit;
the poison of asps is under their lips:
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
Their feet are swift to shed blood:
Destruction and misery are in their ways:
And the way of peace have they not known:
There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
What a list of charges! They are presented that “every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” Rom.3.19. When the Holy Spirit applies these truths to the unregenerate heart the result is conviction of sin, without which there could be no repentance.
There Must be Contrition
When a person is deeply convicted about sin and the need for forgiveness, there is genuine contrition of heart before God. David speaks of this in Ps.51.17, “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” Contrition is a sense of crushing or brokenness in the sight of God. It denotes the absence of pride and self-esteem. In Matt.5.3 the Saviour speaks of contrition as means of blessing, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God”. True repentance will never be seen in a person who has a feeling of self-pride when confronted with his sins.
There Must be a Humble Spirit
Conviction of sin produces contrition and the end result is humility: “a man’s pride shall bring him low: but honour shall uphold the humble in spirit” Prov.29.23. There is no evidence of repentance in a proud sinner who refuses to bow low and approach God in a spirit of humility; “Though the Lord be high, yet hath He respect unto the lowly: but the proud He knoweth afar off” Ps.138.6. “Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: him that hath an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer” Ps.101.5. Pride is likely the greatest barrier to blessing and forgiveness in either the salvation of sinners or the restoration of saints. We cannot receive mercy if we will not humble ourselves before God. Humility is mandatory for repentance and forgiveness.
There Must be Confession
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, there is a constant demand for confession of sins to affect forgiveness. When sin entered the Garden of Eden, God’s questions to Adam and Eve were intended to bring about confession: “Where art thou? Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” Gen.3.9-11. Did God not know the answers to these questions? Of course He did! He was graciously confronting them with their sins and giving them an opportunity to confess them. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” Prov.28.13. The demand for confession applies to a sinning believer as well as to a sinner. Committing private sin requires personal confession to God, whereupon forgiveness and cleansing are granted: “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” 1 Jn.1.9. Public sin must be confessed, first to God and then to those who have been affected by it, as in Jms.5.16, “confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed …”. In both personal and public sin retribution must be made where demanded, as part of the act of repentance. This is seen in the experience of Zacchaeus when he said, “behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” Lk.19.8. Confession must be done carefully and thoughtfully, lest others are made to stumble, and it must be thorough and complete.
A PARABLE ON REPENTANCE
The three-fold parable in Luke chapter 15 is probably the best known of all the Lord’s parables. It is also the longest, and gives more detailed teaching than any other. It is essential that we include it here, for repentance is its main theme. The murmuring of the Scribes and Pharisees prompted the parable: “Then drew near unto Him all the publicans and sinners for to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, this Man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” They complained about the Saviour’s association with sinners. By the use of a parable, the Lord explained that He was pleased to be in the company of those whom the religious leaders despised. There are three instances recorded in Luke’s gospel of the Scribes and Pharisees ‘murmuring.’ The Lord’s reaction on these three occasions provides us with His teaching on repentance.
In 5.30 they “murmured against His disciples, saying, why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?” Jesus answered their complaint by saying that “they that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” In 15.2 the murmuring is directly against the Lord Jesus Himself, when they said “this Man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them”. The Lord takes up their grievance, and explains again that His acceptance of sinners is on the basis of their repentance. In chapter 19, when Zacchaeus repented, yet again there is murmuring; but it is by “all” that “saw”, v.7. The murmuring of the leaders had spread like leaven to all the people.
In each of the three chapters there is a complaint against the Saviour and His disciples:
5.30 “Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?”
15.2 “This Man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.”
19.7 “They all murmured saying that He was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.”
In His reply to each instance of complaint, there is a plain statement by the Saviour to explain the action of Divine love and mercy in response to repentance.
5.31 “I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
15.7 “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth …”
19.10 “For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
The Lord Jesus lays a different emphasis in each reply, but all relate to our subject of repentance. In chapter 5 He emphasises the need of the sinner; in chapter 15 it is the joy of the sinner and the Father; and in chapter 19 it is the blessing of the sinner.
There is no parable so full of detailed gospel truth as the three-fold parable of Luke chapter 15. It would be beyond the scope of this article to expound it all, but we will pick out the salient principles relating to repentance. There can be no doubt that the parable is to be interpreted as the salvation of a sinner, and not the restoration of a saint. Although there are similarities in the repentance of both, the context and content of the parable show the teaching to be repentance to salvation. The audience to whom the Lord spoke consisted of “publicans and sinners” 15.1. The son’s sin took him to the far country, where he is described as being “lost and dead” 15.32. His repentance brought him to a place of delight and blessing where he is “found and alive” 15.32. These descriptions are appropriate to salvation, not to restoration.
When dealing with the lost sheep and lost silver, the Lord makes no mention of any action on the part of the lost: all the activity is by the owners as they seek for what is rightfully theirs. The shepherd goes after the lost sheep, otherwise it would die. The woman seeks diligently until she finds the lost silver, otherwise it must remain in the darkness. The teaching is clear: if God does not move in mercy towards the lost sinner there will be no salvation. A sinner will never repent, nor even have a desire to do so, unless God begins to work in the heart by the Holy Spirit. However, to give the full picture, the emphasis changes in the story of the lost son. Not only must God work in conviction on the heart, but the sinner must respond to that conviction. If the sinner has no will to repent, there will be no blessing. The boy was responsible for his sins, and he was responsible also for his own repentance.
The Prodigal’s problems began with his covetousness, when he said “give me” 15.12. The problems for the human race began when a similar covetousness arose in Adam’s heart that led him to eat of a tree forbidden by God. For both Adam and the Prodigal, the problem quickly plummeted into darkness and despair. For the Prodigal there could be no blessing until he began to long for a change. In the Saviour’s description of his thoughts about himself, his sin, and his father, we get an explanation of repentance. Repentance by the sinner is just that – a change of mind about himself, his sin, and God. The boy’s mind began to work – “he came to himself” v.17: he changed his mind about his past choices and where they had led him. His memory began to work and he thought of his father’s house, v.17: he changed his mind about the vast provision available in his father’s house. His misery began to work on him – “I perish with hunger” v.17: he changed his mind about his present condition. This shows us where true repentance commences – in the mind. It involves a change of mind. But without acting upon his change of mind he would have died in the field: there must also be a change of heart towards his father. He resolved to arise and return to his father and confess his sin, v.18. What a moment when the change of mind and heart was manifested in a change of direction – “he arose and came to his father” v.20. At the start of the story “he took his journey into a far country” v.13, but now he is on his way back. He has decided that he will be honest with his father about:
His Works, “I have sinned …” v.13.
His Worth, “And am no more worthy to be called thy son” v.19.
His Wish, “Make me as one of thy hired servants” v.19.
However, when his father ran to meet him, and the boy expressed his confession about his works and worth, v.21, it ended there. He got no opportunity to state his wish to be as a hired servant. He was enveloped in his father’s embrace of love and expression of grace. There is a blessed interruption by his father in v.22, “But the father said to his servants …”. This is the great principle of grace in forgiveness. The father will not be dictated to: blessing cannot be bartered or exchanged for penitence. Similarly, blessing is entirely on God’s terms: it is not for the repentant sinner to tell God what he or she is prepared to do in order to be accepted. Repentance brings the sinner out of “the far country” to confession at the Father’s feet, where remission is granted without retribution, grace is extended ungrudgingly by God, and the repentant sinner is placed in the sphere of blessing without any probation. Blessing is always according to “the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” Eph.2.7. The Father is delighted to receive the sinner back “safe and sound” Lk.15.27.
This parable gives us the full-orbed picture of repentance. It was not just when he changed his mind about self and sin, that he was blessed. Repentance demands a change of heart about God the Father and a change of direction towards Him. All these features were necessary to complete his repentance. Finally, the Saviour teaches that, when a sinner does repent, it brings joy in heaven, v.7, to the angels, v.10, to the Father and to the repentant sinner, vv.23, 24. Repentance is having second thoughts about sin and God that result in conviction, contrition, humility, and confession.