How to repent like a prodigal

by Justin Dillehay 

One of the most neglected teachings in the whole Bible today (at least here in the States) is the doctrine of repentance.

How many sermons have you heard about it lately? In some ways, it’s much easier to talk about “believing” than “repenting.” After all, few people today have a problem with faith (provided they get to choose what they believe and who they believe in). But when you talk about repentance, you invariably have to talk about sin, because sin is what we have to repent of. And in our increasingly libertarian, relativistic culture, telling people to repent of their sin sounds more and more like telling them to give up their liberty or deny their identity.

So I repeat, one of the most neglected biblical teachings today is the doctrine of repentance. This is an unfortunate omission. Because Scripture presents repentance as extremely important, even necessary for salvation (Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:28; 17:30; Mark 1:14-15).

But what does repentance look like? Perhaps a story will help.

Jesus provides us with a good illustration of repentance in the parable of the prodigal son (or at least in the first half of it). So let me reproduce Luke 15:11-24, and then close with a few bullet-points on repentance from the story:

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:11-24 ESV)

 I want to point out four aspects of repentance that can be seen in the prodigal son.

(1) Repentance was necessary for him to be saved. 
While he was out blowing his dad’s money on prostitutes, the parable says “He was lost.” The parable does not encourage us to think that the prodigal would have been saved regardless of whether he had left the pigpen and come home. And if you’re in a similar position right now, the Bible doesn’t encourage you to think you will be saved regardless of whether or not you repent.

(2) Repentance includes a godly sorrow and healthy self-loathing for sin.
The prodigal was sorry for how he had treated his father, because he knew his father deserved better. You see this when he says “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

Now I call this godly sorrow and healthy self-loathing because there is such a thing as ungodly sorrow and unhealthy self-loathing. Why do I say that his sorrow and self-loathing were godly and healthy? Because he got up out of the pig-pen and went home to his father. He didn’t wallow around in his sin forever. An ungodly, suicidal, Judas-like sorrow would have said, “I’m so wicked that I don’t deserve to be called my father’s son, so I’m just going to stay here and starve to death. I’m not going home because that would be too good for me. I deserve to be punished.”

A healthy, self-loathing, prodigal-like repentance says, “Yes I deserve to be punished! No I don’t deserve to be called my father’s son! But I’m going home anyway.”

And while we’re on the subject, repentance confesses its own sin, not the sins of others. The prodigal didn’t point out the failings of his father. He didn’t confess his older brother’s sin. And he didn’t come home with a sense of entitlement, as though “He is my dad, after all, so he really ought to let by-gones by by-gones. After all, no one’s perfect!” This is not how true repentance talks. True repentance says “I am no longer worthy. Make me a hired servant.”

(3) Repentance resolves to walk differently in the future. 
He left the pigpen behind and made plans to work as his father’s hired servant. In other words, he wasn’t planning on going back. He didn’t keep the pig farmer’s address or the prostitutes’ phone number. He turned his back on it all, and staked all his hopes on being received by his father.

(4) Repentance is accompanied and enabled by faith in the Father’s goodness
What made him think repentance was even a possibility? Why did he feel like going home was even an option after what he had done? Answer: he was trusting in the goodness and mercy of his father. Even his hired servants have more than enough bread!

He said to himself, “My father ought to run me off as soon as he finds out I’m coming, but I know what he’s like and I don’t believe he’ll do that. He’s good. He’s merciful. He treats his hired servants with kindness. So maybe, just maybe, he’ll be willing to let me work for him as a hired servant. He might let me pay him back slowly all the money I blew.”

Repentance without faith is presumption. If we understand how holy God is and how offensive sin is to him, then we will never dream of repenting–unless, of course, we also see the light of his glory in the face of Christ Jesus. If God were not holy, then sleeping with prostitutes would be nothing to repent of (which is why many people think they don’t have to). But if God were not merciful, there’d be no need to waste our time trying to repent.

The Law shows us why we need to repent, but only the gospel shows us why we can.

God has a Son, too. And that Son was no prodigal. But in love God gave that Son for ungrateful, fornicating sons like you and me. And in love that Son left his home and came to the far country of this world, becoming obedient unto death.

This is the gospel. This is the warrant for repentance. Not that the Father doesn’t mind his sons being prodigal, but that the Father has dealt with our sin in the person of his Son.

So feel compelled to repent. And feel free to repent. Whoever leaves the pig-pen and comes home will never cast out.

If you want to see what repentance looks like, then look at the prodigal son. If you want to see what God’s mercy looks like, well, there’s a man in that parable who runs to meet his son in a very undignified fashion…

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