“Properly speaking, repentance consists of two parts: One part is contrition, or the terrors that strike the conscience through knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or the Absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven.” (The Augsburg Confession, 1530

I once saw a man holding a sign that read:

Divorce is an abomination. Repent!

That’s it. Nothing else. Nothing about forgiveness, nothing about God, nothing about Christ or His blood-soaked cross and empty tomb. I couldn’t help but approach the man and ask him one question.

“Repent to what?”

He didn’t answer. In fact he wouldn’t even look at me. I asked the question again…still nothing. So I told him about all that Christ had done for a world of wretched sinners and I asked him to consider adding some good news to his sign, if he was dead set on holding one. Sadly, he never spoke to me. Never even looked at me. But he certainly heard me.

“Repentance” is a word we use a lot in Christianity. All of the Old Testament Prophets said to repent. John the Baptist said to repent. Jesus said to repent. The Apostles said to repent. Apparently repentance is a big deal. Understandably, we feel the pressure to get this right—but far too often we get it wrong.

Because the Church is made up of sinners, we don’t have to look far to find a Christian who has blown it in every possible way—and if we’re going to go looking, we should look in the mirror. The Bible tells us plainly: “no one does good, not even one” and “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (Romans 3:12 & 1 John 1:8)

So we repent. But if repentance is such a big deal, how do we know when someone is truly repentant? What signs do they show? What language do they use? And who decides?

We have a tendency to put a person’s repentance under the microscope in order to determine if it is genuine or not. Are they really sorry? Let’s take a look… Have they wept enough, felt ashamed enough, did they use the word “sin” enough, and so on. It all goes under the microscope. And this microscope is usually found in the hypocritical Laboratory of Public Opinion, where all manner of religious mad science takes place.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells us a parable about a Father and his two sons. It is here where we see what repentance looks like and how grace responds to it. Just like the definition above from The Augsburg Confession, “repentance consists of two parts.” Contrition is the Prodigal’s return and Absolution is the Father’s response.

We all know the story. The younger son leaves home and blows his inheritance on self-centered hedonism. He finally comes to the end of himself while feeding pigs and being tempted to join them for dinner. The Law does its work. The son knows he has sinned. He knows there is no excuse for what he has done. But maybe, just maybe, his good Father will take him in as a servant. Maybe he can prove just how sorry he is. Maybe he can work off his sins. So the Prodigal heads home, practicing his confession and request with every step back.

When the Father sees his wayward son coming down the road, he doesn’t look through any binoculars. There is no checking to see if his shoulders are slumped enough, if his head is hung low enough, or if his cheeks are tear-streaked enough. Instead, the Father flings open the doors and runs out to embrace his son.

The Prodigal only had it half right. Repentance doesn’t look like cutting a deal with your Father to work off your sins, but it does look like going home.

Grace doesn’t investigate a homebound son. Grace runs out to embrace him with love. It doesn’t scream, “Bring me the microscope!” It says, “Bring the best robe and shoes. Give him a ring and fire up the barbecue—because we’re about to celebrate!”

Grace doesn’t respond to repentance by asking, “Why couldn’t you be more like your older brother?” Or… “Will you promise never to do this again?” Grace never says, “I told you so.” Grace doesn’t listen to a word of your well thought out work plan for redemption.

Grace interrupts you with words of mercy so outrageous they make your own brother object. Grace gives each Prodigal every reason to believe the good news that he is forgiven. All is as it was before—“It is finished.”

What is repentance? It’s nothing to be investigated. Nothing to be dissected. It’s a gift to be celebrated. Put away the microscopes and fling open the doors, because “It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:32)

Repentance is going home where all is forgiven.