Time and again, Christian communities have become divided over deciding whether a member has repented, and whether they can be forgiven to the extent of allowing them to fellowship at the breaking of bread. Whilst this problem may seem distant to the newly baptized believer, especially if you are in isolation, as sure as day follows night you will at some time be troubled by it.
It is not enough to reason 'The prodigal son was accepted back, so we should accept repentant brethren too'. No Christian disagrees with this. But the problem hinges around how we define what is repentance, and to what degree we accept that God sets an ultimately high standard, but will tolerate a lower standard. If we refuse to accept this latter principle in any form, we are saying that there is only one tolerable standard, and unless we achieve it, we cannot be saved. We are thereby preaching justification by works rather than by faith.
In any case, the Greek and Hebrew words translated ‘repentance’ strictly mean a change of mind, and not necessarily any works / actions. God in this sense can ‘repent’. It seems to me that we have to recognize a changed state of heart in our repentant brother, without demanding ‘works’. In Mt. 18:15, the Lord says of a sinful brother: “If your brother sins… go and point out the fault… if he listens to you, you have regained your brother”. But in Lk. 17:3, He says: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him”. This would parallel the brother’s ‘repentance’ with him ‘listening’ to you. Seeing repentance is a state of the heart, and we simply can’t know the hearts of others, it seems to me very hard indeed to judge the level of another’s repentance.
Mt. 5:48 defines the standard: " Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect" . Unless God will tolerate our achievement of a lower standard than His own righteousness as revealed in His word, none will be saved. We each expect God to tolerate our failure to reach up to this ultimate standard. In the context of marriage, for example, every Christian couple fails to love each other as Christ loved the church. Separated couples also fail in this, and are therefore united with the rest of us in a fellowship of failure. It is therefore the height of ingratitude to threaten others with disfellowship unless they completely fulfil God's standards regarding marriage. As we judge, we really will be judged. Doesn't that just frighten us? We should be so careful to show tolerance to those who fail to attain the standard.
Our fellowship of failure should be bound close together by our common experience of God's forgiveness. What we owe to God can never be repaid. Realizing this affects how we define what is repentance. Just one sin brings eternal death; after sinning, we cannot go back and re-live those minutes, hours, days or years when it was committed. All we can do is trust in God's grace and believe that God will negate the just results of that sin. Because we are forgiven debts which we can never repay, we are asked to liberally forgive our brethren for their far smaller debts. It appeared that the man who owed a small amount was better able to repay it than he who owed much. But the ability of our brethren to repay the debt of their sin is not something we should consider. Surely this is what the parable teaches. The ability of people to repent is something we should not consider. God does not consider our ability to repay Him- for we are utterly unable to do so.
We must forgive our brethren as God forgives us (Eph. 4:32). God expunges the spiritual record of the sin, and will not feed it into some equation which determines whether we can be forgiven. Christ " frankly" forgave the debtors in the parable. The frankness of that forgiveness does not suggest a process of careful calculation before it could be granted. God's frank forgiveness is seen too in Ps. 130:3: " If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord who shall stand?" . God does not " mark" sin, as our love for our brethren should keep no record of their past sins (1 Cor. 13:5-7 N.I.V.). If we refuse fellowship people because of the effect of past sins for which they have repented, then we are 'marking' iniquity. God does not deal with us in a manner which is proportional to the type or amount of sin we commit (Ps. 103:7-12).
You will probably encounter brethren who will seek to persuade you that we must make a difference between certain categories of sin, concluding that some sin must be repented of openly, and other sin (e.g. a fit of anger) can be repented of privately. But you must really consider what Biblical proof there is for this? Is this what the Bible really says about repentance?