LUKE CHAPTER 15
REPENTANCE IN LUKE
By Zane C. Hodges
I) [LUKE 15:1-7]:
THE NINETY-NINE RIGHTEOUS SHEEP
In the first article of this series, we maintained that the silence of John in his Gospel on the subject of repentance is a powerful argument that he did not regard repentance as necessary for eternal life. In the second article, we showed that John's frequent reference to repentance in the book of Revelation reveals that he treated repentance as necessary for the avoidance of, or for the cessation of, God's temporal judgments--whether on the saved or the unsaved.)
Just as 1 Corinthians 13 is the classic New Testament chapter on love, and Hebrews 11 is the classic chapter on the life of faith, just so Luke 15 is the classic chapter on repentance. The three parables that it contains are familiar and much loved. They are, of course, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Lost Son.
It is a great irony, however, that these three stories are very often misread and misunderstood. This irony is even greater in view of the fact that the text of Luke gives us a clear and unmistakable clue to their meaning. In this article we shall consider the first two of these stories as they are found in Luke 15:1-10. In a subsequent article, Deo volente, we will look at the Parable of the Lost Son, while in yet another article we will consider this son's self-righteous older brother.
B) THE PARABLE OF THE LOST SHEEP
The three parables of Luke 15 are introduced by verses 1-3. There we see the Pharisees and scribes complaining that our Lord Jesus "receives sinners and eats with them" (v 2). They are scandalized by the fact that He accepts them into table fellowship with Himself. This no self-respecting Pharisee would condescend to do. In response to their criticism, Jesus proceeds to tell these stories, beginning with the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
It is clear on the face of this story that the shepherd of this parable owns all one hundred sheep. This is plain in the words, "What man of you, having a hundred sheep" (v 4) and from the words "my sheep" in verse 6. As was frequent in Palestine, especially in the southern region called the Negeb (= "the dry"), this shepherd was grazing his flock in territory described as "the wilderness." This sparsely inhabited region contained sufficient vegetation to sustain sheep as their shepherd led them from grazing place to grazing place. Thus, in the parable, the shepherd is feeding his sheep when he notices that one of them has wandered away from his flock.
Upon making this discovery, he leaves the ninety-nine "in the wilderness" in order to "go after the one which is lost" (v 4). From the perspective of a Middle Eastern shepherd, this can hardly mean anything other than that he felt the flock was reasonably safe and would stay together.
After recovering the lost sheep, he places it lovingly "on his shoulders" (v 5) and brings it back to the flock. When the day's grazing is over and "he comes home" (v 6), he has a party to which he invites "his friends and neighbors" (v 6) so they can share his joy in having "found my sheep which was lost" (v 6). That this "party" parallels the celebrations staged in the next two parables, goes without saying.
Our Lord's application of this story is crystal clear: "I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just [Greek, dikaios = righteous] persons who need no repentance" (v 7; italics added). The words which we have placed in italics are the key to this parable. The ninety-nine sheep represent people who are "righteous" and who therefore do not need to repent. This is what the text plainly states.
But this is not how it is interpreted by many who read and/or teach it. Instead, the "ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance" are transformed into "ninety-nine unrighteous persons who only think they need no repentance! That this manifestly contradicts the text and turns it upside down is so clear that this rereading of our Lord's words is self-refuting.
Plainly stated, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is not about eternal salvation at all. It is about a Christian who wanders away from God's flock and pursues the pathway of sin. His restoration to fellowship with his Savior and Shepherd, as well as to fellowship with the Lord's people, who have not wandered away, requires repentance. When such a recovery of a straying believer occurs, the Great Shepherd is filled with joy and heaven itself rejoices with Him. And so, of course, should God's people as well (a point to be addressed in the story about the brother of the Prodigal Son: Luke 15:25-32).
After more than 40 years of ministering to the group of believers who now gather at Victor Street Bible Chapel, I am thankful that the Lord has allowed me to see this parable fulfilled repeatedly. Time after time, various ones of God's straying sheep have been found and restored to the flock by their loving Shepherd.
II) [Lk 15:8-10]:
Our Lord's second parable in Luke 15 reinforces as well as complements the first. If the Shepherd Himself is concerned for any of His sheep that stray, so also the Christian Church should be. As has often been suggested, the woman in this parable is very naturally taken as representing the Church itself.
B) THE PARABLE OF THE LOST COIN
Once again, it is obvious that the woman of the parable is the person to whom the ten coins belong. One of them becomes lost (v 8), but just as clearly the other nine do not! The story assumes that the woman knows exactly where they are. She is looking for the one lost coin, not the other nine.
In order to find it, however, she must "light a lamp" and use a broom to "sweep the house" (v 8). It is evident that the place where she lives is both dark and dirty, and that she believes the lost coin may be found in some dark nook or cranny where there might be considerable dirt or trash. The parable thus admirably fits the reality that the Christian Church lives in a world which contains more than enough darkness and moral and spiritual filth (cf. 2 Pet 1:19 "as a light that shines in a dark place").
Born again Christians do indeed go astray in this world of darkness and filth, but they still retain their identity and value to God just as a lost coin is still valuable no matter how much trash it is buried under. The Church is responsible to recognize, as did the woman in the parable, that the straying Christian still has enormous value and needs to be returned to the company of other believers so that his value and theirs may be properly utilized for God. A Christian church is always "richer" when a straying Christian returns to the fold.
The recovery of such a Christian is a source of joy to the Church and to its heavenly "friends and neighbors," the angels of God (v 910). That the angels are intimately concerned with what happens in the Christian church is clearly indicated by passages like Ephesians 3:10; 1 Corinthians 11:10; Hebrews 1:14; 12:2223; and other texts. Indeed, 1 Corinthians 11:10 in particular implies that the angels observe Christian practices and activities (cf. also Luke 24:67). Employing the imagery of the Lord's parable, we might say that whenever the Church gathers the angels are "invited" and in fact attend as unseen guests! So whenever the Church gathers and rejoices over a backslidden believer who has been recovered, it does so "in the presence of the angels" who are there to share that joy (v 10)!
There is nothing at all in either parable about eternal salvation. In fact, Luke 15 as a whole is a celebration of one of the most joyous experiences that a Christian congregation can have--the recovery for God, and for the congregation, of one of God's precious sheep and valued coins. May the Lord grant this joy repeatedly in grace churches all over the world!
The misreading of the parables of Luke 15 as though they applied to the salvation of sinners is very unfortunate. To be sure, it is wonderfully joyful when an unsaved sinner gets saved. That joy too has come many, many times to Victor Street Bible Chapel. But that is not the joy described in these parables about repentance. To be saved, all the unsaved person needs to do is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31)!
III) LUKE 15:11-24
A) LOST SON, NOT LOST SONSHIP
Luke 15 is the classic NT chapter on repentance. Here, if anywhere, we should meet the fundamental teaching on NT repentance. As we saw in our study of Luke 15:1-10 (last issue) , the first two parables of the chapter--The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin--very clearly refer to the repentance of a born-again person who has wandered away from God's flock and become "lost" in the sense of being out of touch with the Lord and His people.
B) A SON BEFORE HE REPENTED
But if this is evident in the first two parables, it is even more evident in the third parable, The Prodigal Son. Indeed the very title by which this parable is known in the church declares the parable's clear intent. This is the story of a son who has wandered away from his father! The NT does not disclose any sense in which unregenerate people may be considered as "sons of God." It follows, therefore, that the reference is to a Christian who has gone astray, just as the lost sheep and the lost coin have exactly the same reference.
It is notable that even in the far country where the Prodigal squanders his resources, he is fully conscious of his sonship. We are told: "But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no longer worthy to be called your son, Make me as one of your hired servants'" (Luke 15:17-19; emphasis added). Are these the words of an unsaved person? Hardly.
Even after squandering the resources that his father had placed in his hands, the Prodigal is still fully aware that he is his father's son. He is also aware of the lofty privilege of being a son, but he now feels that his conduct makes him unworthy of such a status. He intends to tell his father to reduce him to the level of a hired servant, not because he is not a son, but because he feels "no longer worthy to be called your son." We hear an echo of these words in the lovely statement of 1 John 3:1, "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God!" The Prodigal feels he has fallen far below the privilege of being called a child or son of his father.
The repentant Prodigal now goes back home and is welcomed unconditionally by his father who "ran and fell on his neck and kissed him" (v 20). The son's confession is genuine but he underestimates the fullness of his father's forgiving grace. So he not only says, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight," but he also adds, "and am no longer worthy to be called your son" (v 21).
The father brushes such an idea aside, and he says, "Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet" (v 23, emphasis added). This is not the treatment accorded to hired servants! And the father also says, "And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (vv 23-24; italics added). Both in terms of his treatment of the Prodigal, as well as by his direct announcement, the father proclaims the returning young man is his son.
But it should be noted carefully that he is not just now becoming his son. On the contrary this same son previous to this had been "dead" and "lost," but is now "alive" and "found." These words of course do not mean that this son had somehow literally lost his life. Instead they describe his period of separation from his father. On the level of the entirely human experience in this parable, the father has felt the absence of his son as deeply as if he had died, because he had totally lost contact with him. Their reunion is like a glorious coming to life and a joyful rediscovery of the shared father-son experience. Any father who has long been separated from a son whom he loves dearly can fully relate to these words.
C) AN ENORMOUS WASTE
Once this parable is properly understood as applying to the restoration of a straying Christian, its vital lessons leap to life. To begin with, just as the Prodigal "wasted his possessions with prodigal living" (v 13), so also the straying Christian wastes the resources God has placed in his possession. Time spent out of touch with God is an enormous waste of time, energy, strength, ability, and opportunity. When such a Christian is restored to the Lord, he often experiences profound regret for what has been wasted during his period of separation from God. This is especially true when the separation has lasted for years, as it sometimes does. I actually know fellow Christians who have expressed exactly this idea to me.
D) A DEEP SENSE OF UNWORTHINESS
In returning to God, particularly after a long separation from Him, repentant Christians are likely to experience a deep sense of unworthiness. They may feel that they have disgraced the Christian name and they may be all too aware of bringing disrepute to God their heavenly Father. Such Christians need to be reassured of the full and gracious acceptance God extends to them when they return. Their forgiveness is complete and they need not feel as if they are forever second-class Christians, as if they now served God as mere hired servants. Instead they should be encouraged to enjoy all the privileges of sonship, symbolized by the robe, the ring, and the sandals.
E) LOST OPPORTUNITIES
But as is transparent from the story, though the Prodigal returns to the full experience of sonship, he does not get back the possessions he has foolishly squandered. Restoration for the straying Christian is real, but the loss of time, potential, and opportunity is equally real. The portion of any Christian's life that is spent away from God, as well as the rewards that might have been earned during that time, are permanently lost.
F) A TIME TO REJOICE
But though all this is true and sobering, it does not destroy the reality of the joy that should always be a part of the "home-coming" of a repentant son. The parable assures us that God our Father always rejoices when one of His sons comes home. And if He does, so should we (this issue will be addressed, Deo volente, in the next article).
G) NO GROUNDS TO DOUBT
Finally, as this story shows, if the gospel is properly understood, the backsliding Christian will have no grounds to doubt his salvation, even when he is in the far country of sin. Like the Prodigal himself, he will still know that he is a son of the Father whose fellowship he has left. Needless to say, this assurance can be a powerful incentive for the backslider to "go home!" Years ago, I heard a young man in a Baptist church up north give his testimony about returning to God from a deeply backslidden condition. But he assured us that he always knew he was a Christian because he had learned with regard to salvation that "there was nothing I could do to earn it, and nothing I could do to lose it!" If all churches taught the gospel that clearly, they would lay a solid foundation for the return of more than a few prodigal sons!