From “Christian Repentance,”
a sermon by John Henry Newman, 1801-1890
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired servants." (Luke 15:18-19)
The very best that can be said of the fallen and redeemed race of Adam is, that they confess their fall, and condemn themselves for it, and try to recover themselves. And this state of mind, which is, in fact, the only possible religion left to sinners, is represented to us in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who is described as receiving, then abusing and then losing God's blessings, suffering from their loss and brought to himself by the experience of suffering.
First, observe, the prodigal son said, “I am no more worthy to be called your son, make me as one of your hired servants.”
We know that God's service is perfect freedom, not servitude, but this it is in the case of those who have long served him. At first, it is a kind of servitude, it is a task until our likings and tastes come to be in unison with those which God has sanctioned. It is the happiness of saints and angels in heaven to take pleasure in their duty and nothing but their duty, for their minds go that one way and pour themselves out in obedience to God, spontaneously and without thought or deliberation, just as humans sin naturally. This is the state to which we are tending if we give ourselves up to religion, but in its commencement, religion is necessarily almost a task and formal service. When people begin to see their wickedness and resolve on leading a new life, they ask, “What must I do?” They have a wide field before them and they do not know how to enter it. They must be bid to do some particular plain acts of obedience. They must be told to go to church regularly, to say their prayers, morning and evening, and regularly to read the scriptures. This will limit their efforts to a certain end and relieve them of the perplexity and indecision which the greatness of their work at first causes. But who does not see that this going to church, praying in private and reading scripture, must in their case be, in great measure, what is called a form and a task? Having been used to do as they would and indulge themselves, and having very little understanding or liking for religion, they cannot take pleasure in these religious duties; they will necessarily be a weariness to them and they will not be able even to give his attention to them. Nor will they see the use of them. They will not be able to find they make them better though they repeat them again and again. Thus their obedience at first is altogether that of hired servants.
“The servant knows not what his lord does.” (John 15:15)
This is Christ's account of them. Servants are not in their employer’s confidence, do not understand what their employer is aiming at or why their employer commands this and forbids that. They execute the commands given them, they go hither and thither, punctually, but by the mere letter of the command. Such is the state of those who begin religious obedience. They do not see anything come of their devotional or penitential services, nor do they take pleasure in them. They are obliged to defer to God's word simply because it is God’s word. To do this implies faith indeed, but also shows they are in that condition of a servant which the prodigal felt himself to be in at best.
Now, I insist upon this, because the conscience of repentant sinners is often uneasy at finding religion a task to them. They think they ought to rejoice in the Lord at once and it is true they are often told to do so; they are often taught to begin by cultivating high affections. Perhaps they are even warned against offering to God what is termed a formal service. Now, this is reversing the course of a Christian's life. The prodigal son judged better when he begged to be made one of his father's servants. He knew his place. We must begin religion with what looks like a form. Our fault will be, not in beginning it as a form, but in continuing it as a form. For it is our duty to be ever striving and praying to enter into the real spirit of our services and in proportion as we understand them and love them, they will cease to be a form and a task and will be the real expressions of our minds. Thus we shall gradually be changed in heart from servants into children of Almighty God. And though from the very first, we must be taught to look to Christ as the saviour of sinners, still his very love will frighten, while it encourages us, from the thought of our ingratitude. It will fill us with remorse and dread of judgment, for we are not as the heathen, we have received privileges and have abused them.
So much, then, on the condition of repentant sinners; next, let us consider the motives which actuate them in their endeavours to serve God. One of the most natural, and among the first that arise in their minds, is that of propitiating him. When we are conscious to ourselves of having offended another and wish to be forgiven, of course we look about for some means of setting ourselves right with that person. If it is a slight offence, our overtures are in themselves enough, the mere expression that we wish our fault forgot. But if we have committed some serious injury or behaved with any special ingratitude, we, for a time, keep at a distance, from a doubt how we shall be received. If we can get a common friend to mediate on our behalf, our purpose is best answered. But even in that case, we are not satisfied with leaving our interests to another; we try to do something for ourselves and on perceiving any signs of compassion or placability in the person offended, we attempt to approach that person with propitiations of our own, either very humble confession or some acceptable service. And this holds good when applied to the case of sinners desiring forgiveness from God. The marks of his mercy all around us are strong enough to inspire us with some general hope. The very fact that he still continues our life, and has not at once cast us into hell, shows that he is waiting awhile before the wrath comes upon us to the uttermost. Under these circumstances, it is natural that conscience-stricken sinners should look round them for some atonement with which to meet their God. And this, in fact, has been the usual course of religion in all ages. Whether with burnt-offerings and calves of a year old, with thousands of rams and ten thousands of rivers of oil, with the offering of a couple’s first-born for their transgression, the fruit of their bodies for the sins of their soul or, in a higher way, “by doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:6-8) by some means or other, repentant sinners have attempted to win God's attention and engage his favour. And this mode has, before now, been graciously accepted by God, though he generally chose the gift which he would accept. Thus Jacob was instructed to sacrifice on the altar at Bethel, after his return from Padan-aram.
David, on the other hand, speaks of the more spiritual sacrifice in the fifty-first Psalm: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Such are the services of the penitent, as suggested by nature, and approved by God himself in the “Old Testament.”
But now, turning to the parable of the prodigal son, we find nothing of this kind in it. There is no mention made here of any offering on his part to his father, any propitiatory work. This should be well observed. The truth is, that our Saviour has shown us in all things a more perfect way than was ever before shown to humankind. As he promises us a more exalted holiness, a more exact self-command, a more generous self-denial and a fuller knowledge of the truth, so he gives us a more true and noble repentance. The noblest repentance, the most decorous conduct in conscious sinners, is an unconditional surrender of themselves to God (not a bargaining about terms, not a scheming to be received back again, but an instant surrender of themselves in the first instance). Without knowing what will become of them, whether God will spare or not, merely with so much hope in their hearts as not utterly to despair of pardon, still not looking merely to pardon as an end, but rather looking to the claims of the benefactor whom they have offended, and smitten with shame and the sense of their ingratitude, they must surrender themselves to their lawful sovereign. They are runaway offenders. They must come back, as a very first step, before anything can be determined about them, bad or good; they are rebels and must lay down their arms. Self-devised offerings might do in a less serious matter as an atonement for sin, but they imply a defective view of the evil and extent of sin in their own cases. Such is that perfect way which nature shrinks from, but which our Lord enjoins in the parable, namely, a surrender. The prodigal son waited not for his father to show signs of placability. He did not merely approach a space and then stand as a coward, curiously inquiring and dreading how his father felt towards him. He made up his mind at once to degradation at the best, perhaps to rejection. He arose and went straight on towards his father with a collected mind and though his relenting father saw him from a distance and went out to meet him, still his purpose was that of an instant frank submission. Such must be Christian repentance: First, we must put aside the idea of finding a remedy for our sin; then, though we feel the guilt of it, we must set out firmly towards God, not knowing for certain that we shall be forgiven. He, indeed, meets us on our way with the tokens of his favour, and so he bears up human faith, which else would sink under the apprehension of meeting the Most High God. Still, for our repentance to be Christian, there must be in it that generous temper of self-surrender, the acknowledgment that we are unworthy to be called any more “his child,” the abstinence from all ambitious hopes of sitting on his right hand or his left and the willingness to bear the heavy yoke of bond-servants, if he should put it upon us.
This, I say, is Christian repentance.
Will it be said, “It is too hard for a beginner?”
Yes, but I have not been describing the case of a beginner. The parable teaches us what the character of the true penitent is, not how people actually at first come to God. The longer we live, the more we may hope to attain this higher kind of repentance in proportion as we advance in the other graces of the perfect Christian character. The truest kind of repentance as little comes at first, as perfect conformity to any other part of God's Law. It is gained by long practice, it will come at length. Dying Christians will fulfil the part of the returning prodigal more exactly than they ever did in their former years. When first we turn to God in the actual history of our lives, our repentance is mixed with all kinds of imperfect views and feelings. Doubtless there is in it something of the true temper of simple submission, but the wish of appeasing God on the one hand, or a hard-hearted insensibility about our sins on the other, mere selfish dread of punishment or the expectation of a sudden easy pardon, these and such like principles, influence us, whatever we may say or may think we feel. It is, indeed, easy enough to have good words put into our mouths and our feelings roused and to profess the union of utter self-abandonment and enlightened sense of sin; but to claim is not really to possess these excellent tempers. Really to gain these is a work of time. It is when Christians have long fought the good fight of faith and by experience know how few and how imperfect are their best services, then it is that they are able to acquiesce and most gladly acquiesce in the statement that we are accepted by faith only in the merits of our Lord and Saviour.