Repentance is a central tenet of Christianity. Alien to other religions, repentance is the core on which Christian faith is built. While we see a prelude to it in the fiery desert preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus gave it the elaboration that took it from confines of the desert to the depths of the human heart, so much so that without repentance, no faith is possible.
While in popular understanding, repentance is feeling sorry for what you have done, examination of Scripture reveals a deeper understanding of this concept. The story of the prodigal son returning to the father, gives us the backdrop against which the multi-dimensional aspects of repentance can be grasped.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20)
Coming to your senses is the first aspect of repentance. Ordinary man lives an illusory life where there is no knowledge of God and no understanding of self. In that ‘aha’ moment induced by desperation, the flagrant prodigal son remembers his father and comes to recognize not only the abundance of his father’s household, but also the futility of a life charted independent of him. Recognizing and acknowledging God is like a key that opens the door to recognizing oneself and that is where repentance begins.
A recognition of having fallen short of God defines repentance. The son acknowledges that he sinned not only against his father but also against heaven. There was no mention of heaven prior to this moment. Much like reality cannot be defined without God, no action can escape the moral compass of God. Every sin is wrongdoing against God, every miss is a miss against the requirements of God. All men have fallen short of God’s glory and need to repent. Repentance not centered around God is no repentance at all.
A genuine feeling of unworthiness is characteristic of true repentance. The son starts the story with being one who valued himself so highly that all others including his father were despised. Yet in that moment of repentance, he recognizes his true unworthiness. He is not averse to even resigning himself to the fate of being a servant in his father’s household. Having lost all, and the right to call himself a son, genuine unworthiness takes him to the point of unconditional surrender to his father. A repentant person no longer has notions of greatness about him as he sees himself a sinner in the light of the perfection that is found in Christ.
Finally repentance involves a return. Regardless of all that he recognized, repentance would have not borne fruition if the son did not go back to his father. Returning to God involves a decision to live life in a different manner and of submitting to the lordship of Christ. Genuinely feeling sorry for your sins naturally gives way to a lifestyle that rejects sinful tendencies.
God reaches out to a world lost in sin and repentance is the appropriate response.
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