We are told in the Scriptures regarding repentance that the Lord is “longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9) and that “the goodness of God [that] leadeth thee to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Genuine repentance is a gift from God and can only be received when the truth of the sin is acknowledged (see II Timothy 2:24–26).
Repentance is not a mechanical duty but rather a heartfelt, sorrowful response to the conviction of sin (II Corinthians 7:10). Not only does it involve grief over sin and the damage that sin caused, but repentance is also a decision to change one’s ways and reverse course. When John the Baptist preached, he challenged his listeners to “bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8).
Christ’s parable about the prodigal son provides rich insights about the essence of repentance. The story begins with a man who had two sons. The younger son asked for and received his inheritance, left home, and lived recklessly. When his money was gone and the land was struck with a famine, he realized how he had hurt his family and wasted his riches. The young man decided to return to his father in repentance.
Repentance begins by coming to one’s senses.
“And when he [the son] came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!” (Luke 15:17).
The prodigal son had demanded to have his own way and had lived in the excesses of sensual pleasure. Only when his resources were spent did he realize his foolishness.
Repentance admits that “I have sinned.”
“I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee” (Luke 15:18).
Those who fail often blame other people or circumstances for their calamity. True repentance involves understanding and admitting “I have sinned,” not only before others, but also before God.
Repentance recognizes personal unworthiness.
“[I] am no more worthy to be called thy son” (Luke 15:19).
The prodigal son recognized his unworthiness before God and his family. He was humbled by his mistakes. He wanted his family to know he realized that his attitudes and actions had wounded them.
Repentance accepts new limitations.
“Make me as one of thy hired servants” (Luke 15:19).
The prodigal son realized that when he repented of his sin and returned to his father, he would not automatically regain everything he had lost. He was willing to accept the discipline of even more limitations than those which he had cast off when he left his father’s household. He simply desired to be restored, even to the position of a servant.
Repentance elicits varied responses.
“He arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet . . . and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:20–24). The father welcomed his returning son with open arms, full of forgiveness.
His brother, on the other hand, was not happy about his brother’s return or their father’s response. “Now his elder son was in the field . . . . And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf” (Luke 15:25, 28–30).
The older son had neither heard the prodigal’s confession nor met with his brother to discern that his repentance was genuine. Hopefully, the father’s final entreaty softened the older son’s response: “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31–32).
While the father could restore his son to full fellowship, he could not restore the squandered inheritance. With its loss, the prodigal son would one day be accountable to his older brother and would work under his direction. He would have many opportunities to demonstrate his change of heart with meekness and diligence.
The evidence of repentance that is presented here is the expression of deep humility resulting in sorrow over one’s sin and a return to walking in the ways of God. God promises to reward such humility with grace. “But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6). He promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).