“Repentance” is a bigger word than either “regret” or “remorse”. Regret is a mild, and remorse a deep and “biting” sense of sorrow for sin or folly; but repentance is “sorrow for sin” combined with “a sincere desire to forsake it”. It involves, not only sorrow and shame for one’s wrong-doing, but giving it up and trying to live a better life.
Christ’s well-known parable of the Prodigal Son well illustrates repentance in action. It is a story of a willful and wrong-headed young man, who got money out of his loving father, ran away from home to “a far country, and there wasted his substance in riotous living. And when he had spent all, … he began to be in want”. The only job he could find was feeding swine; and he was so hungry that he would have liked to eat the husks given to the swine. “And when he came to himself”, he said, “How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father.”
There you have all the elements of true repentance. First, “he came to himself”; that is, he saw his folly and wrong-doing in the clear light of truth. This is what religious people call “conviction of sin”. Next, though it is not said in so many words that he was sorry for his sin, sorrow and shame are clearly implied in his words, “I have sinned”. Then comes confession of sin: “I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son”. Also, there is the willingness to accept and bear punishment for his sin: “Make me as one of thy hired servants”. Finally, and most important of all, there is the giving up, the turning of one’s back on sin: “And he arose and came to his father”. He returns from the “far country” of “riotous living” and goes back to duty and filial obedience.
And how is he received ? With full and free forgiveness. His father “fell on his neck and kissed him”, crying in joy, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”. Thus, taught Christ, does our Heavenly Father receive every truly penitent sinner who prays to Him for pardon.
The elements of true forgiveness, then, are : “conviction of sin” seeing sin and wrong for what they are; sorrow and shame for wrong done; confession; willingness to bear punishment for sin; and, finally, not only “a sincere desire to forsake” sin, but the resolute turning of one’s back on the old bad life and determination to live a new, good life. For it is true—
“That men may rise on stepping stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.”