The word “repent” means to change one’s mind. It is the change of heart that happens when a person feels sorry and regret for the sin in their life and determines to change their way of living to live as God would want them to live. The result of such repentance is that one changes their life to actually live a different way. Repentance is illustrated powerfully in the story of the prodigal son. He turned away from God by asking for his share of the family wealth and then leaving home, going to the far country and there living a wasted, futile life away from God and right. When he lost his money and his friends he found himself in a famine and glued himself to a citizen of the country who sent him out to feed the pigs. There in the pig pen, where his devastation reached it’s heights with him wanting to eat the pods he was feeding the pigs, he came to himself. He said, “In my father’s house even the servants have enough to eat and to have some left over, but here I’m perishing with hunger. “This is what I’m going to do. I will get up and go to my father and say to him, ‘I’ve sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be your son. Make me one of your servants. The father saw him a long way off and ran to meet him. He hugged and kissed him and when he started to tell him about his repentance the father sent servants to get the best robe for him, shoes for his feet and a ring for his finger. He had them kill the calf they had been feeding for a feast day. His lost son was found. His dead son was alive.
When did repentance take place? When he came to himself and made the decision I’m going home. The repentance resulted in him going home and God completely forgiving.
Some sins that a person commits can be corrected when they repent. If I accidentally back into my neighbors car and mash in the side of it, repentance will cause me to go to him and tell him my regret. But it will also lead to my getting his car fixed for him. What kind of repentance would it be if I told him I was sorry for the bad fender and I would be praying that God would put it all back into place? In such situations the right thing is to repair and undo the damage done to the best of my ability. This principle is illustrated in the little Book of Philemon, when the runaway slave, Onesimus stole money from his master Philemon as he left. In Rome he was arrested for his crime and thrown into prison. There he met the apostle Paul who taught him about Jesus and about salvation. He gave his life to Christ. Notice that Paul then sent him back home to Philemon to make things right. He pleaded with Philemon to accept him, no longer as a slave but as a brother and even said to Philemon if he owes you something, put it on my account. But he sent him back to restore some relationship.
But what can you do when you want to repent of a sin that can’t be repaired or restored? Some things can’t be undone once they have happened. On the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached to the multitude he pointed to the fact they had crucified and slain Jesus Christ. They couldn’t do a thing about that now. The dirty deed was done. But when they asked what to do, Peter said they needed to “Repent and everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” You can change your mind about any sin and turn to God even though you can’t always undo the sin. I’ve heard people say that if a person has divorced a partner and remarried someone else the only way they can repent is to get another divorce now and go back to the one they were originally married to. The Bible never teaches this idea. Think of how ridiculous it is to think that you solve the sin of divorce by getting another divorce. Or that you solve the problem of breaking up a family by breaking up another family. Repentance in such a situation involves changing our minds about the sin and determining to live differently from now on. Instead of breaking up another marriage, determine to be faithful and true to the one you are now married to and be the kind of partner to them that leads them to God and doing right.
If I have sinned against a friend in such a way that I’ve hurt him badly and I come to myself and go to him to ask for his forgiveness determined to live differently from now on, is my ability to repent destroyed if he refuses to forgive me? Sometimes nothing you do will ever restore or undo the deed that was done. But in every case you can repent. The forgiveness of our sins isn’t based on how other people react to our repentance. Thank God that is the case.