“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this Godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.”
2 Corinthians 7:10-11
At the heart of the Apostle Paul’s defence of his ministry to the Corinthians he shares these thoughts in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 in which he describes for us the reality of Gospel repentance. These are such important verses that every Christian should commit them to memory, bringing them to mind constantly so that we can truly begin to live the time of experienced Christian faith that the Bible calls us to. What Paul does here is to contrast Godly sorrow which leads to a real repentance and abundant life through Jesus Christ with a worldly sorrow that leads to a false, fleshly repentance that only continues us on the downward spiral to death.
What are the characteristics of each? This calls for self-examination as we explore each one briefly today.
1) Godly sorrow is the creation of the Holy Spirit as He convicts us of our rebelliousness towards God. We constantly want our own way. We want to solve our problems ourselves, so that our pride can be satisfied with what we have made ourselves to be. God’s Spirit confronts this attitude of heart, and exposes its bankruptcy. Such sorrow is always centred upon God. We come to know that there is a fundamental brokenness in our lives which comes from our estrangement in life. At this point we understand the wickedness of our sin. It has separated us from the only source of real life. As a consequence we find ourselves unable to know God in any real sense. We may know all about Him. But we do not know Him. Here Godly sorrow leads us to the only real help available to us. This is the grace of God in Christ. God, in His great love for us, has done everything necessary to make us alive in Christ. We are humbled because we have come to know that we can never solve the problem of us, on our own, in our own flesh. The only solution is found in God’s grace.
2) Worldly sorrow on the other hand is the creation of our own flesh. It is self-centred instead of Christ-centred. It is characterised by sorrow over the consequences of our rebellion against God. How often have we found ourselves only beginning to feel concern over sin when we discover that we might get caught in it? We want to escape its consequences, but not necessarily from sin itself. When caught in our sin, worldly sorrow leads to a false repentance which leads us to try to reform our lives in our own flesh. The best we can hope for here is that our behaviour will improve, but we are still left dead in our sin. The consequence is that we are made to become increasingly self-righteous with no saving knowledge of Christ.
John Miller in Repentance and 29th century Man explores this theme with the following encouraging words.
“If conviction of sin is demanded as though this were the goal of things, if human unrighteousness is exposed apart from faith in Christ, then men will be left in a state of penance, and they will return to pre-Reformation misery, with salvation made entirely unstable because it is founded on what man does to recover himself.
Sinners in such a state have no way of knowing whether God loves them and will receive them into His heart. Psychologically and morally, all is left dark and shoreless. When sin is exposed apart from the promises of God, reality for the man outside of the Lord becomes increasingly inverted and twisted. The aching conscience cannot possibly find relief in this way.
In other words, repentance can only be genuine and lasting when the evildoer sees that God’s mercy is available to him. Put grace in an unreachable realm and you simply deepen the convicted sinner’s despair and opposition to God. But John’s Gospel banners forth the absolutely finished character of Jesus’ work (John 4:34, 17:4, 19:30). There is enough love, and more, accessible to any sinner who wants it. One drop of Jesus’ blood will, as it were, atone for the worst of man’s sins. How then can we fail to respond when we are assured that cleansing love flows in superabundance from Calvary?” (John Miller, Repentance and 20th Century Man (Fort Washington, Pa.; Christian Literature Crusade, 1980) p. 80)