religious leaders

Repentance—Not Just for Unconverted Sinners

The word repent and the idea of repentance conjures stereotypical images. Perhaps you imagine someone with a half-crazed look wearing a signboard with the word emblazoned on it— REPENT!

People familiar with the Bible might imagine one of the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah or John the Baptizer, whose ministry directly preceded and announced the public ministry of Jesus.

John was not a mainstream kind of person. He wore rough clothing, ate locusts and honey, and lived outside the city limits. If you wanted to hear him, you went to him. He didn't do house calls, and his message was direct and impartial (Matt 3:1-12).

It's time to ditch the stereotypes and misconceptions about repentance.

Strong reactions

Last week I posted Repentance—the Heart of the Matter. I wanted to reframe the concept of repentance in a more biblical sense than what is typically thought or expressed by others.

The word repent stirs all sorts of responses. Not all are helpful. Why do the words repent and repentance stir strong reactions? Perhaps the word itself is misunderstood.

This is a follow-up to my previous post but more directed at the value of repentance for Christian believers. The topic of repentance is more typically considered in light of those who are nonbelievers or unconverted—those who are not Christians.

And yet, much of the biblical focus on repentance is directed towards those who believe in God and claim to be His people. The Old Testament is full of examples.

The word repent stirs all sorts of responses—not all are helpful

The meaning of words

Most of the time, we get our understanding of words by how they're used. The words, "Oh, I love you," are understood based on how they're said. It depends on the intent of the speaker—is it spoken with romantic passion or sarcasm? Different intent and tone result in different reactions.

So, it's good to find the original meaning of a word, then understand it within its context. I'll give some biblical examples of this later. But first, some definitions from their Greek origins.

  • Vines Expository Dictionary defines repent (the verb)—to perceive afterwords, and repentance (the noun)—afterthought or change of mind.
  • MR Vincent sheds more light on the subject saying, repentance is the "result of perceiving or observing," or "to think differently after." After what? He points us to what the apostle Paul says in 2 Cor 7:10—Godly sorrow brings repentance....

Repentance is the outcome and action of godly sorrow.

Another perspective

Most often, the idea of repentance is understood as turning away from sin. Yes, but why? If repentance is to "think differently after" as MR Vincent puts it, then we ought to consider what precedes this change in thought and behavior.

This understanding, coupled with biblical examples, helps me see repentance as turning to God, which causes us to turn away from sin and our former way of life. I pointed this out last week.

Most often, the idea of repentance is understood as turning away from sin

If you look at the three parables in Luke 15, each focuses on what was lost and found—a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son (Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 33). The simple truth of each parable reminds us of the rejoicing in heaven "over one sinner who repents."

In the longer (third) parable, the lost son realizes his situation would be better if he were accepted as a mere servant in his father's household (Luke 15:17-24). The father gives him a very different reception than expected or warranted (see Luke 15:28-32).

God's perspective or our own?

Someone might ask, "Does it really matter? Isn't the idea to change your ways?" This is where our problem lies. We often see repentance as something we need to do.

I've heard many preach and teach this perspective, but is this what we read in the Scriptures? Again, I addressed this in my previous post.

Is repentance based on our own effort to change or a response to God's mercy and grace after experiencing God's kindness?

Is repentance our effort to change or a response to God's mercy and grace?

The message of Jesus—Repent!

When Jesus began His public ministry, His message was one of repentance (Matt 4:17). This also was the message John the Baptizer (Matt 3:2, 8). John spoke to the religious and non-religious in a tone that carried a sense of judgment.

Repentance takes place when our mind and actions change after an initial hardness of heart

But when Jesus was confronted with a situation that demanded justice, He showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11). The woman's accusers wanted Jesus to condemn her.

But after Jesus wrote on the ground in front of the men accusing her, they quietly left one by one. Then Jesus said to her— 

“Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:10-11 NKJV)

More examples

Another example of this change of mind after is seen in the parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-32). This parable illustrates the same mindset of changing the mind and action after the initial response of these two sons to their father.

It also gives insight into how the message of repentance Jesus declared was received by various people—tax collectors, prostitutes, and the Jewish leaders. Those who knew their life was not right with God received it well but the religious leaders rejected His message.

Again, in one of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus they had abandoned their first love and needed to repent.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5 ESV)
The idea of repentance is a turning back to God as our first love.

A final thought

Repentance is something we all need to practice. It's not just the act of turning away from sin, but turning to God so we may turn from sin. None of us are without sin, no matter how long we've had a personal relationship with God through His grace.

Repentance is something we all need to practice—believers and nonbelievers

In fact, once we have a relationship with Jesus because we experience His forgiveness and the renewal of His Spirit in us (Titus 3:4-7) as we turn to Him in repentance. But believers are to put sin to death, not just turn away from it (Col 3:5). But that's another topic for another time.

Repentance is our response to God's kindness and goodness, not our own effort at goodness. Our own efforts at producing righteousness will meet with repeated failure (Rom 7:15-25). 

But when we turn to God first, He will guide us out of our battle with sin—our selfish nature—(Gal 5:16) and bring transformation from the inside out (2 Cor 3:18).

Repentance is our response to God's kindness and goodness not our effort to be good

I find the need to practice repentance on a daily basis—how about you?

Missing the Point

It's easy to get lost in details and not see the bigger picture or miss the main point of a story or message. It happens more often than not. How often have you done a search on the internet, or wandered around on YouTube or FaceBook and forgotten what you set out to find?

This type of thing happened a lot with Jesus and His teachings. He didn't get lost or miss the point, those who heard Him did. Even when He told parables, those simple stories, they were either misunderstood or those who should understand completely missed the point.

Ironically, in the time of Jesus, it was the educated and religious leaders who most often missed the point of Jesus' teaching and miracles. Funny thing, it's still that way more often than it should be.

Parables and the main point

The parables Jesus told in the Gospels were, for the most part, true-to-life stories intended to teach one simple truth. They're not allegories, although many people try to interpret them as such. They are figurative stories like extended metaphors.

Some are longer than others and appear allegorical, and some are quite short. All have one simple truth or main point. Most of the time this is made clear by the context of the parable—it's cultural and chronological setting.

So we need to understand the parables of Jesus from the original hearer's point of view, as well as how Jesus intended them to be understood.

5 simple keys to understanding parables

  1. Immediate Context— This includes the surrounding Scripture text where the parable is found and its setting, including the cultural and historical context. Here are 3 specific things to look for—
    1. Occasion— understanding the situation of the parable provides insight into why the parable is told.
    2. Setting– this includes the basics of who, what, where, when the parable is told and how it's expressed.
    3. Historical setting– hear the parable through the ears of those who first heard it.
  2. Interpretation— Did Jesus interpret it?
    1. If He did then this is the interpretation! You don't need to make one up or look any further for more interpretation. Look at the context before and/or after the parable text to see if it's interpreted by the Lord.
    2. If it's not interpreted, rely on the context, details in the parable, and look to see if the parable is told in another gospel.
  3. Central Point— This would be the main focus or subject of the parable.
    1. Look for a constant element within the parable. Ex– the seed in the Parable of the Sower.
    2. Seeing the Central Point is key to understanding the one simple truth of the parable.
  4. Major Details— These are the most important parts of the parable that point to the Central Point. They are more important than other minor details that help tell the story.
  5. The Simple Truth— This is the reason why the parable is told. It's the point of the story and is usually indicated by the immediate context (see below for a downloadable guide).

3 linked parables

In Luke Chapter 15, Jesus tells three related parables. Each one focuses on what is lost (the central point). The first one tells of a man who seeks and finds a lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). The second features a woman searching for a lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10).

They are also linked by the setting of the immediate context—

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story. (Luke 15:1-3 MSG)

All three parables have the same simple truth—rejoicing over a repentant sinner (Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 32). The implication is that there is greater rejoicing over the repentant sinner than those who seem to need no repentance (Luke 15:7) and who are not sinners.

But the third parable in the chapter has an extended story with much greater detail than the first two. The target of these parables becomes more apparent as the third story unfolds.

Parable of the lost son

The lost son is the main focus of the parable (Luke 15:11-32) but two other main characters—the father and an elder son—bring the story home, so to speak. 

There's an obvious tension between the religious leaders and many of those who followed and listened to Jesus—the sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Neither one trusted or respected the other but for very different reasons.

This reflects the current tension between what are called the churched and the unchurched and de-churched. Those of us in the church see others as outsiders needing to repent or at least get into church fellowship.

Here's how the story plays out for each of the 3 main characters in the story.

The younger son

This is the primary story (Luke 15:11-21). The younger of two sons asks for his share of the family's inheritance in advance and heads off to a country far away. He quickly wastes his father's wealth living in rebellion to how he was raised.

Things deteriorate quickly when a famine grips the land. The son finally lands a job feeding pigs (an unclean animal under Jewish law) and wishes he could eat the pig's food because he's so destitute.

Here the story turns as he realizes his pitiful situation—

“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 15:17-20a NIV)

The father

The father of these two very different sons is somewhat of an enigma. He willingly gives into the young son who makes a complete mess of his life. When this rebellious failure of a son returns home, he doesn't scold or condemn him but celebrates his return with great fanfare.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24 NIV)

For a third time the same simple truth is stated—For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

I love how the father lets his son confess his sin but moves right past it to a celebration! No wonder the son returned home. He knew the nature of his father. He knew how gracious he was! But the other son, well that's the other side of this story.

The elder son

The son who stayed home and worked in the father's field hears the celebration and is puzzled by it, so he calls a servant over to fill him in on what's going on. When he finds out he goes into a sulk and refuses to join the celebration (Luke 15:25-28).

Once again we see the nature of the father who goes out to his oldest son and pleads with him to join them. But this son will have none of it!

But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29-30 NIV)

The eldest son was angry, resentful, selfish, self-righteous, stubborn, and defiant towards his gracious and patient father. Obviously, this reflects the attitude of the religious leaders who criticize Jesus for associating with all these sinners (Luke 15:2).

But wait! It sounds an awful lot like you and me.

How often I've found myself angry or resentful and complaining to God about others while God is dealing with my hardened heart. As believers, we are too often more like the elder brother than the younger, and not much like the father. We miss the point of God's gracious nature!

We all have difficulty grasping the enduring mercy and far-reaching grace of God. We like and want God's mercy and grace for ourselves but often think they should be limited when it comes to others. I addressed this somewhat in a previous post.

Personal application

Once we understand a truth we need to apply it in our own life. With parables, once we understand the parable from the point of view of the original hearers then we can look at how it can apply to our life in our present time and culture.

I can relate to the younger son, especially in my younger years. But I can also relate too well to the elder son and more often than I'd like to admit. Who I need to relate to is the father who's just like my Lord Jesus.

I don't always understand how and why God shows such mercy and grace as He does, but I'm thankful for Him doing so. His mercy and grace will always be greater than my sense of justice and righteousness (James 2:13) and I'm glad for that!

Do you have disdain and disgust for some people while denigrating others?

Then it's time to repent and ask God to soften your hardened heart!


Here's a simple guide for understanding and studying parables— Study Guide for Parables


This post is linked to a message I preached along with a couple others that will be posted in the coming weeks. You can find them at– Calvary Chapel Crossville/teachings

The Power of Mercy and Love