Does A Person Need To Turn To God To Be Forgiven?

I noticed something in a review of Luke 15 that got me thinking.  Especially in light of a Facebook comment I read which said:  “Forgiveness doesn’t start until we do turn back.”

The thought behind that comment, if I am not mistaken, is that grace – mercy, God’s love, forgiveness, the whole package – is somehow made complete by our action.  We have to “turn back,” by which the author of that comment probably means:  “If you want to be forgiven, you need to repent.”

Let’s look at Luke 15 and see if that comment can be supported.

Look at the way the younger son reflects on his predicament.  He thinks to himself:  “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.”

Here’s what I want you to notice.  The younger son never really “turns back” – at least not in the sense that Evangelical theology understands it.  This is no remorse for the way he treated his father.  There is no sorrow over the hurt and pain he brought into the relationship with his father.  There is really not a lick of concern over the way his rebellion impacted his father.

What is the young son’s focus?  He is focused on himself.  He wants a good meal and a comfortable mattress.  When he left the father’s home he was totally self-centered.  When he “turned back,” his focus remained self-centered.

The Evangelical religious mindset feels the need to make the younger son appear to feel grievously burdened over his sinful behavior.  They want to twist the story to make the boys trek home to seem like the poor lost sinner walking the isle during the third verse of “Just As I Am” – tears streaming down his face.  But that is not in the text.  The boy does not engage in anything that even remotely resembles the religious formula call repentance.

Why does the boy return home?  He does so because he is sick and tired of the pig slop and fears that if he has to stay where he’s at, he’s going to end up dead.

Now here the power of grace at work. Despite his self centered religious speech that thought nothing of his Father’s heart, the boy was welcomed home not as a slave, but as a son and heir.

When we see this, we can’t help but realize how scandalous this is to the religious mindset that suggest we have to do something (i.e. “turn back”).

Let’s  back up just a little and explore the entire fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel.  It opens with Jesus in conflict with the religious leaders of the day – specifically, the Pharisees and teachers of the law.

These religious folks had a problem with Jesus.  It seems that his time was preoccupied by the likes of  tax-collectors and sinners.  The “sinful cast” were evidently drawn to Jesus.  It’s not really a surprise.  In Jesus they experienced  God’s love, grace, mercy, inclusion, and acceptance. They did not turn toward Jesus looking for such gifts.  They received these gifts and as a result were drawn toward him (see Luke 15:1-2).

Next notice the two parables that precede the account of the Prodigal.  With both the story of the lost sheep and lost coin, we need to understand that both were lost only because they belonged to their respective owners. The undeniable truth here is that the lost belong to God.  You can’t be lost unless first you belong.

Now of course neither the lamb nor the coin “turned back.”  Rather they were sought out.  The shepherd went to find the little lost lamb.  The woman searched till she found her lost coin. In the case of both, there was celebration at the recovery of the lost lamb and the lost coin.

Now if context is to be considered, then these first two stories inform how we read the third.  The younger son was lost only because he belonged.  He was forever and always his father’s little boy.

That said, the boy brought tremendous sorrow into the father’s heart.  He had absolutely no regard for the father’s feelings.  “Give me my inheritance,” he said. In other words, “You are dead to me!”

The text says that the boy came to his senses.  If you have ever been near a pigsty, you can bet his senses were working overtime.  There he was, eating slop, sleeping in the corner of the pig pen, fearing for his life.

What drew him home? It was his remembrance of his father’s goodness. “Back home the slaves live better than this.”   The remembrance of the father’s goodness is the framework.  He’d never have thought about going home if he did not remember that his father was a good man.

So the boy puts together a little religious speech about wanting to come home and become a slave. There is no repentance on his part. No turning back. There is no remorse or concern for the father. All he wants a decent bed and a nice meal.

So it’s hard to say that he turned back…but if you want to say that, it is only upon reflection of the father’s goodness. It is still the goodness or mercy or forgiveness or grace of the father that draws him.

Then he shows up and guess what. The father is looking for him. The father runs to him. The father embraces him.
The boy has his speech all ready to go…but the father has nothing to do with him. Bring him the robe and the ring.

I do not think you can say from the story that he “turned back” and that’s when forgiveness began. You have too see that the boy was never outside the father’s grace. Never.

If you read it within the context of the two prior parables, you have to see that the lost boy actually belongs to the father as much as the little lamb and lost coin.  Further, just as they could not return home on their own, neither could the boy return home without being aware of the father’s innate goodness and love.

Next, if you see this story in the context of Jesus confrontation with the Pharisees because the “sinners” surrounded him, the point is strengthened.  People do not turn to Jesus to be blessed.  They are drawn to Jesus because he blesses.

Now read the second part of the parable of the prodigal, the section dealing with the older brother who never left home.  The elder boy comes to the house from a day in the field.  He is dismayed and distances himself from the father, his brother, and the party, upset that his younger brother has received such a welcome.  He’s not turned back, but turns away. So what does the father do?  He goes out to the boy.

“My son, all I have has always been yours!” He was not devoid of the father’s forgiveness. It was always his.  He was loved.
Do we have to turn back to be forgiven?  Not according to scripture.  Nobody has to “turn back” to be forgiven. Rather people are forgiven so that they might be able to turn back.

That’s the gospel.

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