Does Repentance Really Work?

John the Baptist was a desert-dweller who dressed in garments made of camel’s hair. Yet crowds came streaming from all directions to the Jordan River, drawn by his fiery preaching. There was one word they would be sure to hear ringing forth again and again: Repent!

When Jesus later began his ministry in the regions of Galilee, his message was equally pointed: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:4, 15)

Throughout the New Testament this compelling word has a stable, constant meaning. It means to change the mind.

Changing one’s mind sounds easy. I pull a red necktie from the rack, but before I have it fully knotted I frown into the mirror, unknot it, and put it back on the rack. I reach for a tie more to my liking. We all change our minds often like this.

Surely, to repent as Jesus commands must mean more than to change the mind over some such incidental matter.

One of my seminary professors explained that to repent in the Christian sense means to change the very set of the mind. It means to acknowledge the depth of our sinfulness — the hostility to God we betray in what we do, say, or think — and to do so in abject sorrow and regret, humbly accepting God’s invitation to be changed and indwelt.

The good news of Christ’s kingdom is that we can, in fact, be changed. “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But not without repentance.

We recall Jesus’ story about the prodigal son who eventually repented. At first he suspected his father limited his freedom and, to be free, he had to get away from father’s restrictive oversight.

So, on his own, he imagined he was granted this freedom, and for a time experienced what felt to him like liberty — no curfews, no work assignments, and all the resources divided out to him spent as he pleased. But this self-assigned freedom quickly led to desperation.

He spent these resources wildly and he was soon penniless; his circle of parasitic friends vanished; in his destitution he became the slave of a pig farmer.

Nothing but repentance could help him. There was no other recourse. He would have to change his mind — the orientation, direction, and content of his thinking — about decisions he had made and their consequences. For starters, he would have to see his father in an altogether different light.

In his desperation he began to review his actions and to feel a sorrow for his hurtful decisions while, at the same time, feeling an awakening love and respect for his father. He longed to see him, to say he was sorry, and to offer his services as a slave on the estate. The distrust that had ruled him evaporated.

He was being revolutionized, totally turned around in the very set of his mind. That’s repentance.

We know how the story ends. Repentance brought him back to his father for a joyful reunion and his father was extraordinarily generous, restoring him to his place as a beloved son.

In coming to experience the blessings of the Gospel, there is no substitute for an initial and heart-deep attitude of repentance. In fact, repenting and believing are linked so closely they cannot be separated. Believing is only authentic if matched with repentance.

This spirit of repentance doesn’t come to all in the same way. In God’s love and wisdom the realization of our need to repent may descend suddenly, like a thunderclap. Or it may grow for days, weeks, or months as a dawning sunrise. However the loving Father sends, it is a gift to which we must respond wholeheartedly.

Jesus’ message at the outset of his ministry was: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). In essence, that means, experience that radical change of mind and prepare for God to deliver his forgiveness with rivers of joy!

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Photo credit: Alan Levine (via


7 thoughts on “Does Repentance Really Work?

  1. I have wondered often, Don, just how deep and sincere the repentance was of the prodigal son. His primary rationalization seems to have been, “My father’s servants are better off than I am.” It’s conjecture, of course, but would he have confessed that he had sinned against God and father if his living conditions had not deteriorated? It could be argued, of course, that his circumstances led him eventually to a genuine repentance, as often happens

    • Hi, Jim: The way Luke tells the story, his repentance was deep enough so no more was said. I like and agree with your final sentence. You have creative thoughts and have always been good with stories. I hope you are still having opportunities to preach. Don

  2. A remarkable thing to me, and this is slightly off-topic, is that his father didn’t question him as to the sincerity of his repentance; he didn’t make him grovel and give a detailed account of his sins and the ways in which he had wasted his money; no acrimonious accusations. I know some people who require “a pound of flesh” before they will forgive; repentance must be verified by a detailed confession of sins committed; their forgiveness is not unconditional. (Perhaps that is a subject for another column).

    • Yes,it is remarkable.How like our Lord Jesus ,when He showed great mercy and forgiveness to the woman taken in adultery .

      Jesus didn’t make her reveal the details of her sin,didn’t humiliate her.Jesus didn’t ask who she commited adultery with ,or what she did or where and when. Jesus more than forgave the poor woman .He was so gentle and kind , sparing her blushes .Jesus asked for no detailed account of her sins,but saved her and unconditionally forgave her.

      I firmly believe Jesus’ mercy and kindness will have revolutionized this woman,turned her around ,changed her mindset ,her heart and her life for ever,saved her.I love to dwell on this divine act of mercy,which so vividly reveals Jesus to be His Father’s Son.

  3. I found this piece of greatest value.When I read it earlier this year I decided I must come back to read it again at Lent, in the light of this special time in the Christian year,a time for repentance ,self examination ,self discipline ,bible study and preparation for Easter.I wanted to make it part of my Lenten study.

    So here I am, come back to this blog,in the first week of Lent.Of course, every day is the right time for repentance.But in Lent we have a season laid aside for us, a very special oppurtunity.

    I read somewhere that Lent used to follow immediately after Epiphany . Just as Jesus went into the desert, immediately after His baptism.But now Lent precedes Easter .It’s often a time for baptism and for those who have fallen away from mother church,to be reconciled ,forgiven and welcomed back .Like a prodigal son,maybe.

    Here in England ,our cathedral,the rebuilt old medieval church of St Michael’s ,Coventry ,retains many of the old traditions and forms .So the day before Lent we have Shrove Tuesday in our church,when we ‘shrive’ ,that is confess our sins or repent.I think shrive is an old English word..Some more catholic Anglicans confess before a pastor in a small side chapel or even ,in our most catholic Anglican churches,in a confession box like Roman Catholics do.We more protestant congregants confess privately ,alone before God.

    Then next day, the first day of Lent, we have Ash Wednesday.We express our penitence, symbolically, in a traditional sign.So on Wednesday at noon I took the imposition of the Ashes before Lord’s Supper.The Bishop of Coventry put the sign of the cross in ashes on my forehead.The ashes were from the burning of last years Palm Sunday palm crosses.

    We think of the words in Job 42: 3-6

    ‘’I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,but now my eyes see you : therefore I despise myself .and repent in dust and ashes’’.

    I take the eyes referred to here, as the eyes of a repentant heart.When we receive the ashes we also remember that we come from dust and shall return to dust,so place ourself in proper context before God.

    Words in Psalm 51 also come to mind.

    ‘’The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart,O God ,you will not despise’

    Though repenting and mourning we nevertheless have great hope,trusting in God’s grace ,His great mercy.

    I understand the word ‘ mercy’ comes from misericordis which literally means opening one’s heart [ to God] in wretchedness.That’s exactly how repentance feels – a feeling of openness to God and exposure ,shame and wretchedness.A feeling of fear of God which, at the moment of trusting surrender to God,turns into hope.

    So as wretchedness engenders hope,Lent is a a kind of healing time.We have a poem we say,which in medieval times was in Latin.Now ,in English it reads-

    ‘’Now is the healing time decreed
    For sins of heart and word and deed
    When we in humble fear record
    The wrong that we have done the Lord’’ traditional anon

    During the last week of Christian Unity,when we joined with Methodists,Baptists,and Roman Catlolics to worship together,a Roman Catholic told me that the Pope had proclaimed 2016 to be a year of God’s mercy,precisely ‘the extraordinary jubilee of God’s mercy’.

    I read some words of Pope Franciscus in a book our church of England bishop reccomended in his recent sermon,I was struck by this act of ecumenical cooperation, considering how a few hundred years ago , a protestant bishop would never recommend the words of a bishop of Rome.

    The Pope’s words are

    ‘’Mercy is the first attribute of God .The name of God is mercy.There are no situations we cannot get out of,We are not condemned to sink into quicksand’’. Pope Francis ‘The Name of God Is Mercy’ 2015.
    These words encourage us to repent with great confidence.

    Now ,reading here,that repentance means changing one’s mind ,one’s whole way of thinking ,changing one’s heart to God one could say – if we consider our repentance and God’s mercy together, we’re given a a wonderful sense of hope.Freedom is possible,even assured ,if we genuinely repent.

    Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son hits me with fresh force.Mistrust can evaporate .Our whole mindset CAN be turned around by God’s grace and mercy ,if we only repent.

    This ‘Just Call Me Pastor’ makes me see how dynamic repentance is.Thanks to God’s abiding grace and mercy, faithful repentance can change everything for us,change our heart back to God.

    The prodigal son’s human father reconciles his son to his parental love,How certain we can be ,then, of our divine Father ,whose mercy and love never fails . Providing only we repent in faith, with a genuine heart .This is what Jesus says to us in His parable of the prodigal son.

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