When Jesus preached the gospel, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he called for a response: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” What does “repent” mean?
The meaning of “repent” is found in Jesus’ parable of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-24) as follows:
“And he (Jesus) said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me (by inheritance).’ And he (the father) divided his living between them.
“Not many days later, the younger son gathered all that he had and took his journey to a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.
“So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, 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 yet at a distance, his father saw him and had 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 fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.”
The parable of the “prodigal son” illustrates the process and meaning of “repentance.”
The process began when the young son recognized his wrong-doing against his father. The son had shown disrespect for his father by squandering the property that his father had given to him.
Next came the son’s decision to turn away from his wrong-doing and confess his sin with an attitude of contrition (feeling sorry for what he had done). The son said to himself, “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.”
Then came the son’s actual change in direction in his life and his confession of wrong-doing (“And he arose and came to his father….and the son said to him, ‘I have sinned….'”).
The son’s confession of sin was made to his father who had been hurt by his son’s bad behavior, and the son was willing to make amends by working as a “hired servant.”
Of course, the father’s response was forgiveness and rejoicing (“for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”).
Dictionaries define “repent” as “to feel sorry for sin and seek forgiveness.” But the parable of the prodigal son shows that repentance is more than this. The process of repentance includes:
1. The recognition of and acceptance of personal responsibility for sin.
2. A sincere feeling of remorse and sorrow for having sinned.
3. A conscious decision to stop the wrong-doing.
4. An actual “turning away from” the sin. This is a change of direction in behavior.
5. A confession of sin and a humble request for forgiveness. The request for forgiveness is made to the one who has been hurt by the sin.
6. An offer to make amends for the hurt that was caused by the sin.
Repentance is not just an intellectual exercise of “feeling sorry” for sins. Repentance involves a “turning” or “reorientation” of one’s life. The evidence of that change is seen in the “fruit,” or how a person lives. John the Baptist told those who came to confess their sins that they must “bear fruit that befits (evidences) repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
The parable of the “prodigal son” also teaches us that we are sinning against God “our Father” if we squander the life that we have received. God expects us to invest ourselves to produce something good in the world.
Jesus said something else about repentance in the parable of the “unmerciful servant” (Matthew 18:23-35) as follows:
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents (a large amount of money); and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment be made.
“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
“But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii (a small amount of money); and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused (to have patience) and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.
“When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
“Then the lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in his anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.”
Jesus said, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
In this parable, when a servant failed to pay what he owed the king, the servant fell down on his knees and asked for the king’s “patience.” The king had mercy on the servant and forgave him of his large debt. But this same servant refused to show mercy and forgive a fellow servant who owed him a small debt. The king condemned the servant who refused to forgive his fellow servant.
Jesus’ point is clear. If we repent of sins, God will forgive us in the same way that we are willing to forgive those who sin against us. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, Jesus makes this same point: “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4).
The parable of the “unmerciful servant” tells us that God will forgive our sins (1) if we repent and ask God to forgive us and (2) if we are willing to forgive others who sin against us.
Jesus said, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in a day and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him (Luke 17:3-4).
Again, Jesus said, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).
The parables of the “prodigal son” and the “unmerciful servant” teach us something else about repentance and forgiveness. While we should ask God to forgive us of our sins, we should also ask forgiveness from any person who has suffered because of our sin, if that person is available. Repentance and forgiveness are not limited to our relationship to God but, in many instances, can and should take place in our relationships with other human beings.
Jesus said that we should “believe in the gospel” that the “kingdom of God is at hand.” The reign of God is a reality here and now for those who commit themselves to love God and to love their neighbor. How do we know if we are committed to God’s way of love? We know by our experience of “repentance” whenever we fail to love.
If we have chosen to follow God’s natural laws of love, we will experience remorse and sorrow whenever we fail to love. This should lead us to repent (turn away from) such unloving behavior and seek forgiveness. If a person is not committed to follow God’s natural laws, such a person will not feel remorse or sorrow over a failure to love.
Of course, no one is perfect. There will be times when we fail to live by love. But if we are trying to live by God’s natural laws of love, we will always experience repentance whenever we fail to love. The ability to repent is a sign that we “believe in the gospel” (good news) of the kingdom of God.