“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:1-7).
If one phrase sums up the way we think about repentance, it may be this.
Whether it’s a fallen pastor, the contestants of our favorite reality TV show, or our best friend, it’s always difficult to trust that when a sinner confesses and repents, they mean it. And so we spend a lot of time waiting for other people’s repentance to prove itself through certain measurements made to meet our personal or societal requirements, whatever those may be.
Perhaps we could blame the modern fixation with a works-based repentance on the rise of cancel culture, shifting moral values, or any other number of reasons, but the truth is we’ve always mixed up the roles of penitent and priest. The Pharisees and scribes were also obsessed with a measurable repentance - this is why they are annoyed to find Jesus fraternizing with and befriending sinners.
So while Jesus refuses to denounce those who surround him, the Pharisees cross their arms, tap their feet, and demand these sinners change, or else. Change is what they want - measurable, quantifiable change. This is because change proves self-sufficient progress, and this is the only way the Pharisees know how to define righteousness.
Just like the Pharisees, we take our self-appointed role of “repentance judges” very seriously. We do this because sin itself is a very serious matter (which it is), but because we want to make sure the penitent stay in line. We can’t risk the chance that they might take this special offer for forgiveness too lightly and turn back to their old ways. By our definition, a little guilt could still go a long way. By our definition, true repentance can’t ever end in forgiveness just in case it doesn’t stick.
So just like the Pharisees, we cross our arms and tap our feet in utter solemnity as we wait for the guilty to do our bidding. We take notes as they go, and might just throw in a compliment or two, but otherwise, we leave the burden of proof up to them. By our definition, the penitent must initiate, maintain, and prove their change of heart - we are merely bystanders. But in this way, sadly, no one is capable of repentance.
All of this is based on the greatest lie of all: others need to change, we are somehow, in some way, immune to the need for repentance. Because the only way we could grumble along with the Pharisees that Jesus has surrounded himself with sinners is to remove ourselves from that category entirely.
Fortunately, Jesus reminds us that we are not in charge of other people’s repentance. We are neither judge nor priest, but instead the sinner in need of repentance. In doing so, he throws the responsibility for both priest and penitent over his shoulders.
According to Christ’s repentance, the judge mobilizes into the role of a shepherd, an ambulatory force with the sole focus of first locating his lost sheep and then carrying them back home. Even though we would define repentance only by the actions of the guilty, Jesus tells us that repentance is instead defined by his action as redeemer. Christ, then, is responsible for our repentance. Yes, when we repent, we have a change of heart, but that change comes when he turns us toward himself as he carries our weight through valleys and over rivers all the way back home.
Furthermore, the shepherd turns us to himself with the utmost joy. Although our realization of sin may rightfully make us, the repentant, sad or contrite, there is only joy for our shepherd and priest. Jesus doesn’t cross his arms and tap his feet as you heartily confess your misdeeds and get to work fixing them. He jumps for joy when he finds you lost and in need of him. It grieves our Savior to see us in sin, but not to rescue us out of it.
Our repentance comes through the confession that we have not and can not do the work required to make our way back to God. It’s in this moment that all joy is let loose, for the shepherd has wrapped his arms around the lost sheep. The found sheep, of course, knows what it has meant that they were lost, but only because of the comfort and security they now find in their owner’s arms. And here, there is nothing but rejoicing, not due to the penitent’s ability to prove themselves worthy, but because Christ has done so first through rescuing us and then by joyfully declaring us as righteous.
If we had our way, we would define repentance only through an unceasing need for proof. We would have to - for we know no other righteousness than self-sufficient progress. But Christ redeems us from such a melancholy reality. He is a far better judge than we ever could be because he is not only judge but also our shepherd and priest. He tells us both that we need repentance and then accomplishes it for us - celebrating every step of the way.