When He Came To Himself
A Behind the Scene Look at Repentance
Elder Jeff Winfrey, Pastor
Dawson Springs Primitive Baptist Church
101 East Walnut Street
Dawson Springs, KY 42408
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the sweetest and most heartwarming stories ever told. And in a sense it is perhaps the most straightforward and uncomplicated of all the parables of Jesus. But in the midst of its apparent simplicity I believe that the parable dives deep into the principles of repentance and brilliantly ties together many different aspects of the great Biblical concept. For instance, the words when he came to himself seem to be such simple words, yet we may have no idea concerning all that is involved for a sinner to do such a thing.
In an attempt to put these words, “when he came to himself,” into a broad context let us go back to the 13th chapter of the book of Luke. Here the Master began a series of extensive teachings on repentance. The first lesson involved recently murdered Galileans and others who had tragically died in a freak accident. Concerning both groups of dead people Jesus asked His listeners to ponder the question as to whether those who had been killed were greater sinners than others who had survived. In answer to the question Jesus declared that the ones who had perished were not the greater sinners. Then He left them with the words, “except ye repent, ye shall likewise perish.” What a sobering thought! The question of who is the greatest sinner is interesting to ponder when it is connected to far distant Galileans. But with the words, “except ye repent, ye shall likewise perish,” the focus comes to self. And thus began the Master’s teaching on judging ourselves as He would build toward the words, “when he came to himself.”
As we progress on through Luke 13 we find multiple lessons on different aspects of repentance. The story of a fig tree that is given one more chance teaches the urgency of immediate repentance. (Luke 13:6-9) Jesus’ healing of the crippled woman shows the willingness of men to judge others, even to judge Christ who was God, while being blind to their own sins and their need to repent. (Luke 13:10-17) And finally the last half of the chapter describes the great work of God in building His kingdom and the failure of men to repent and enter that kingdom. (Luke 13:18-35) And as we enter chapter 14 we again see men who are quick to judge others while having an innate unwillingness to see their own sins. (Luke 14:1-6) Then we see a lesson on choosing a seat at a wedding and how men tend to think too highly of themselves, followed by a lesson on how we tend to look down on others as proven by the ones we invite to our social events. (Luke 14:7-14)
And as if these were not enough lessons to lead us to our need for repentance Jesus now comes to the hard teachings of true repentance. (Luke 14:15-35) Here Jesus brings me to my knees by showing me that I continue to choose the things of this world over Him. Just like the ones He speaks of, I make excuse as to why I cannot come to His great supper. And as I read further I become even more overwhelmed when I find what it truly takes to come. To truly repent and come I must give up everything, even all that I have. Oh and in the midst of these demands He tells me to examine my resources before I decide to begin the battle of coming to the Lord in repentance, for He teaches that a wise man will not enter a battle that he knows he cannot win.
And as we perhaps ponder whether we might be able to win the battle of true repentance Jesus leaves the sinner with the thought that he is not even fit for a dunghill. But then He says, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” This is a dividing statement. It separates those who feel themselves to be real sinners from those that imagine that they are not. It distinguishes between those who have understood the need for repentance and those who think themselves to be fine just the way they are. While the Pharisees and scribes murmured and continued to accuse the Master, those that had ears to hear were overwhelmed by the words of the Lord.
A real sinner at this point in Jesus’ teachings on repentance smites upon his breast and cries, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” A convicted sinner hears the words and is overcome by the hopelessness of his case. I am that real sinner and I cry, “What a hopeless case I am in! My cause is a hopeless cause! If turning loose of everything is repentance, I suppose that I have never and probably will never repent and come to the Lord! Alas, woe is me!”
But the lessons are not over. Jesus has yet more to say to the overwhelmed sinners who draw near to Him for to hear Him. He begins a wonderful parable on repentance with a story of a stray lamb that is sought out and brought back to the fold on the shoulders of a loving shepherd. He continues this parable of repentance with a coin that is diligently sought for and found by its owner. Surely both accounts are teachings concerning our repentance. Both speak of rejoicing in heaven over one that repents. And yet the repentance seems to be something that is accomplished not by the sinner, but by the one who is in possession of the sinner. What a turnaround these accounts bring to my thinking! I now begin to see repentance from a totally different slant. As heaven rejoices, I rejoice at the thought of repentance being akin to a sheep riding on the shepherd’s shoulders. My broken spirit is lifted up to think that repentance is in some way connected with being sought and found by the one who eternally owns me. But I admit that with the joy of mind comes confusion of mind. Which one is it, Lord? Do I have to give up all and come? Or do you just find this lost sheep and give him a ride home and call that repentance?
In answer to this confusion we finally come to the part where Jesus ties it all together, the part of the parable that pertains to the prodigal son. This son sinned while following his own selfish nature. He had come to rock bottom, so to speak. He had come to the end of his rope and more importantly, he had come to the end of himself. He was a broken man. And then Jesus declared that, he came to himself. And when he came to himself he began to see some things much differently. When he came to himself he ceased to think of earthly pleasures. When he came to himself he began to see himself as the unworthy sinner he had become. When he came to himself he began to see his Father in a new light and he began to think of the abundance of good things to be had in his Father’s house. When he came to himself he was humbled to confession of sins, to admission of unworthiness, to begging for forgiveness and to acceptance of a servant’s role. Yes indeed, when he came to himself, he came to true repentance.
But what happened that caused this sinner to forget the ‘self’ he had been so intent on indulging and truly ‘come to himself’ and repent. Perhaps two things led to his brokenness. The first was external circumstances and the second might be called internal circumstances. As far as the external circumstances are concerned it seems reasonable that the fact that the son had spent all, the fact of the famine, the fact of him being in want and the fact that no man gave to him all had an influence on him coming to himself. Yet observation teaches us that all who come to a state of being down and out do not ‘come to themselves’ and repent. So I believe that what might be called internal circumstances also leads to repentance and I believe that internal circumstances led to the repentance of the prodigal son. I believe that there was a work going on within this sinful son that perhaps he did not even realize was acting upon him. Perhaps he was unaware, “not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” (Romans 2:4) Perhaps he did not even realize that while he was working out his own salvation with fear and trembling, God was working in him both to will and to do of God’s good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
Oh we have now plunged into such deep and mind boggling doctrines. But to the glory of the Master, the great teacher of the things of God, I believe that we have here in the teachings about the prodigal son the balance that is necessary for true repentance to occur. Surely this prodigal was led to repentance by his terrible situation and yet I believe the words of Jesus to be true when he declared that he came to himself. I believe that the man made a conscious decision of his own thinking to repent and come to the Father. But at the same time I believe that many things led to the man’s thinking.
According to scripture natural man with a carnal mind is at enmity toward God and spiritual things are foolishness to him. So in his natural mind man will never repent and come to the Father. Before a man can come to himself or come to God, God must already have come to the man. Before a man can work out his salvation God must have already worked in the man both to will and do of God’s good pleasure. And beyond the God of salvation working on the inner circumstances that affect the man’s thinking, I believe that the God of providence oftentimes works on the outer circumstances that likewise affect man’s thinking. This becomes extremely difficult to sort out and perhaps no man has the ability to truly determine how and when the providence of the Lord is affecting a life. It is certain that the hand of the Lord did not make the prodigal commit sin. When he sinned he followed his own lusts and God in no way caused or contributed to this. But a tantalizing thought arises with the famine. Did God bring the famine in order to bring the prodigal to repentance? There is no doubt that God has at times used famines for his purposes. Seven years of famine in Egypt and many other famines in the Bible plainly declare this to be the case. But did God bring this famine that so strongly influenced the prodigal? Was this famine simply a cycle of nature that happened to affect a coincidental repentance? Or was it a part of God’s providence? Since Jesus did not declare the cause of the famine perhaps we cannot either.
But Jesus did declare many things to me in His extensive teachings on repentance. He convinced me that I am quick to judge others and unwilling to see myself. He broke my spirit with reminders that I am unwilling to give up everything for Him. He made me understand that of myself I would never have come to repentance and He persuaded me that I was unfit even for the dunghill. But as I continued to hear His teachings I began to rejoice at the thought of a sheep being carried by the Shepherd to repentance. Could that be me? Perhaps the same Shepherd that has caused me to see myself as a hopeless sinner is the Shepherd that has steered my mind and my life so that I would come to myself. The One who breaks me is the same One who takes me on the ride to repentance though sometimes the ride is not as gentle as might be imagined by the picture of a sheep on loving shoulders. Now it is my mind and my life that turns to Him. But to His glory He is behind the scenes in some sense maneuvering both. Yet I am not a God controlled robot or a puppet on a string. Instead, I am a wayward child being influenced by the guidance of a faithful Father. Yes I am the one who repents, but without the Shepherd I could never have done it. Oh the wonder in the words, “When he came to himself!” Oh the beauty of the simplicity of the story and the wisdom of the depth of the teachings on repentance in Jesus’ account of the prodigal son.