It is permitted to present here a »theocratic« version oriented to the practice of retrials among Jehovah's Witnesses:
He was seen coming and waited until he was there; after he had expressed his wish to return to his parents' house, he was told: As you are, filthy, ragged, stinking, still soiled by the pigs, you cannot enter here; first clean yourself by works of repentance and put on other clothes from good deeds, and then come again.
Then we will talk about it, have a meeting; then you can come into the house; but please sit in the corner and don't talk to the people in the house so we can see your humility. It is also forbidden for them to greet you or talk to you. So don't embarrass them!
And after a certain time we will allow you, with an appropriate evaluation on our part, to count yourself back to the family; but you cannot regain your former position; above all, we expect you to submit yourself strictly to the administrator and his commissioners as well as to all the rules; your deeds will not be forgotten either; rather, we will keep the documents about them for years to come.
Of course we are happy if you want to come back, but first of all make sure you meet the requirements; it's not as simple as you imagined, because after all we have to keep our house clean!
(So I have known the theocratic procedure for many years; if anyone knows another way, I would be grateful for information).
Let us now continue in the biblical version, which is a little different. The father saw the son from afar and he complained. Yes, as sinners we need not be afraid to appear before God and confess the truth; Jesus died for sinners, not for the (self-)righteous! "The Lord is near those who are broken of heart, and He helps those who are broken of spirit" (Psalm 34:19).
The Father ran to meet the Son; he did not first demand acts of repentance, purification, isolation from humility, probation, or even return to an organization, combined with a record of all circumstances and their preservation, as is customary in totalitarian systems; no grace came first, was already there! The Father as well as grace were not deterred by the exterior and the interior; Jesus never demanded anything other than conversion to him! Some say: First you have to put your life in order, sanctify it. No, first comes the conversion to Jesus, the justification by grace, the sonship in the family of God, then the same grace also brings about our sanctification.
The father embraced and kissed the son: "In the beginning was grace! Then the son made his confession. That was important! He could have thought: The father is gracious, so I remain silent, and everything is all right! It wasn't that bad with that little bit of sin! I also have some pride, some self-love!
But that would have revealed a completely wrong state of heart! His guilt would still have remained between him and the Father; there would have been no real peace between them. One can also »repent« in this way, and some do; but it is not a true repentance into the Father's house! The Son's confession of sins was necessary! It was the sign of a right heart transformation! If our life is really to become new, then we must recognize and confess that we have sinned before God!
It is interesting, however, that the son now omits one sentence of his confession that he wanted to recite; he originally wanted to say: "Make me one of your day labourers". In this sentence there was still the concern for his fate; but now, with the father, he omits this sentence; he completely trusts the father, completely leaves it to him what is to happen to himself. Here faith and trust in the grace of the Father are expressed.
The father takes the son into the house, calls the servants – some interpret them as the angels – and has three things brought to the son:
Afterwards a feast is held with music and dance, and everyone – also the servants – rejoice, as Jesus said in Luke 15:7+10. Joy of celebration instead of probation, grace instead of probation. And this banquet, that is the promise of the word of God, will continue in the kingdom of Christ. If this were not so, then we would be the most miserable of all creatures (1 Corinthians 15:19). But thank God for his faithful word!
The Father now also names the reason for the joy: This my son was dead, has now come to life, was lost, was found The natural man is dead before God (Ephesians 2:1+5), lost! He sees neither the holiness of God nor the love of Jesus, nor does he hear His voice.
But Jesus seeks his followers; Paul said: "Now then we have been justified by faith, so we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have access in faith to this grace" (Romans 5:1-3). So have we been found, too, living by grace! And joy also came, as Isaiah says: "I rejoice in the Lord, and my soul is joyful in my God" (Isaiah 61:10). And Jesus assures us that even in heaven joy reigns over everyone who returns to the Father!
So the son had returned; he certainly was not without sin in the future either; he certainly still had to be rebuked often, but he nevertheless remained a son, no longer leaving the Father's house, no longer losing sonship, just as all believing Christians do. He now had to adapt himself again to the customs of the father house, had to learn, to progress, but he was not sent back to the pigs in the event of defeats in this effort! He knew: "I have come home; I now conduct my struggle of sanctification, but as a son, not as one who flies in and out again and again".
He did not have to be confirmed again and again that he was a son, he carried the signs of sonship. Nevertheless, he knows that until the last day of his life he needs the grace of the Father, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ! But was there not a second son?