Repentance is a difficult concept to understand. What does repentance look like? How do we know if someone is truly repentant? Is being sorrowful all that needs to be shown in repentance? This is what the apostle Paul is going to describe for these Corinthians Christians because of a sinful circumstance that had occurred in the Corinthian church. The details of this repentance are described in 2 Corinthians 7:2-16.
Paul introduces this paragraph by reminding them that his heart is open to these Corinthians (7:2-4). The Corinthians have been restrained in their affections because their hearts have been captured by the world and they are participating in idolatry. Paul reminds them that they had not taken advantage of anyone or exploited anyone. Their hearts are tied to the Corinthians in every way.
Now I want you to remember something that we observed all the way back in 2 Corinthians 2:12-13. Paul was writing about his concern for the Corinthian church after he had written this harsh letter to them. Paul then sent Titus to them to find out how the church was doing. Paul was so concerned about how the Corinthians received this letter, he could not remain in Troas where he had an open door preaching the gospel. Instead, he leaves Troas to try to meet Titus on the way who was on his way to Paul. So Paul goes to Macedonia looking for Titus. Notice in 2 Corinthians 2:14 that Paul left that narrative about himself and Titus and then has spent these chapters describing what a servant of God looks like and the hope he has in Christ (2:14-7:4). We made the point that if you read 2 Corinthians 2:13 and then turned to 7:5 and continued reading, it would be seamless. Notice in 2 Corinthians 7:5 that this is where Paul is picking up from as he describes how he went to Macedonia and did not have any rest but was afflicted at every turn. It is here that he meets Titus and is comforted by the news that the Corinthians had responded properly to his harsh letter (7:6-7). These Corinthians have shown a longing for Paul, mourning over their failure, and zeal for Paul in obedience to what he instructed them to do so that Paul is rejoicing all the more. This sets us his discussion about repentance in this letter.
The Regretful Letter He Did Not Regret Writing (7:8-9)
When you read verse 8 it can sound rather confusing. Paul regretted having to write such a difficult letter to them about the sin that was going on in the church but did not regret it because it led to repentance. You probably have had this very experience. You see someone who is in sin. It is a time when they need to hear a straight rebuke for what they are doing. You regret having to speak to the person in this way but you do not regret it because those were the words that needed to be said and you are doing what God has called you to do to love the person’s soul. I want you to know that I feel this way a lot. I have to say strong words to someone because that is what they need to hear. They need correction. They need to be confronted for what they are doing. I regret having to say it. Further, as I wait to see if it will bring about repentance, I second guess what I said, exhibiting this same kind of regret. But I do not regret it because I know it had to be done. This is the pull that Paul is experiencing. He hated having to write that letter but it needed to be written because repentance was needed. Now that he sees the fruit of repentance from the Corinthians he is rejoicing and this repentance has removed any regret he had. So how did he know that the Corinthians repented? What was the evidence to know that the repentance of the Corinthians was true, godly repentance?
True Repentance (7:10-12)
In verse 10 Paul states that there is a difference in grief. Godly grief leads a person to repentance which leads to salvation without regret. Worldly grief, however, leads to death. Notice that sorrow is contained in both responses. This is important to understand and emphasize. Just because a person shows sorrow does not mean the person has repented. Just because a person says sorry does not mean that they have repented. Too often we have come to water down the concept of repentance into meaning that the person shows sorrow. Perhaps the person is crying. Perhaps the person is in anguish. Perhaps the person is apologetic. There are a lot of ways to show sorrow and grief. But just because you are sorry does not mean you have repented. In fact, sorrow is not repentance. Having a proper sorrow is what will lead a person to true repentance is what Paul says in verse 10.
I have heard people say, “Well, I said I am sorry. What else do you want?” Sorrow is not repentance. I want repentance. Sorrow is nothing more than trying to avoid the consequences of your behavior. Sorrow is sometimes nothing more than regret for being caught. We have seen many public figures express sorrow but it was nothing more than a sorrow for being caught in the behavior. This is worldly grief which leads to death. It leads to death because there is not going to be any life change from the sorrow. You are just sorry but have no intention of doing anything about it. So how do we know what true repentance does look like? How do we know that we have a godly grief on display? Listen to what Paul says in verse 11.
For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. (2 Corinthians 7:11 ESV)
Paul says that there is a stark difference in responses that come from godly grief and worldly grief. Godly grief produces earnestness (diligence; HCSB, NKJV). Godly grief immediately wants to do something about the wrong that was committed. There a diligence and earnestness about what has happened. The person will not shrug off the sin as nothing if they possess godly grief and are truly repentant. There is not an indifference toward what they have done nor do they expect others to be indifferent toward them. They recognize the gravity of the sin and there is diligence that is seen in the person’s life.
This diligence is also seen in an eagerness to clear yourself. This does not mean that you try to excuse yourself for what you have done. Rather, it means that there is a strong desire to clear your name, remove the stigma the sin, rid yourself of the guilt, and prove yourself to be trustworthy again. Godly grief desires to immediately correct the problem. Godly grief wants to make right what was done wrong. The truly repentant do not say, “Oh well. We are all human. We all sin.” True repentance accepts the sin and tries to right the wrong. Godly grief desires to prove yourself as faithful and righteous again.
Further, true repentance shows indignation. Again, the indignation is not that a person would come to you to correct you for your sins. Rather, if you are truly repentant you will show indignation toward your sin. We will be upset by what we have done. We will be ashamed of what we have done. We will be upset that we have offended God.
Not only this, true repentance reveals fear. Some translations read “alarm” (NRSV, NIV). This is what true repentance shows. Think about the conviction those people at Pentecost showed when they were told that they had crucified the Christ. Acts 2:37 tells us that they were cut to the heart and cried out, “What should we do?” They are showing this fear and alarm when they were confronted with their sin. The response is the desire to do something about what they have done. True repentance also shows longing and zeal. Again we are seeing an emphasis on the fact that repentance means action. There is longing and zeal that most the individual to take actions in righteousness. They do not merely say, “I am sorry.” There is a zeal that is immediately provoked within the person to do right, to correct the error, and to restore yourself as trustworthy and faithful. You are willing to go the extra mile to do right.
Finally, Paul says “what punishment!” (ESV). The Greek word can also mean “vengeance” and “retributive justice.” I think “punishment” can convey the wrong idea. The point seems to be more the desire for justice and a correction of the wrong (cf. NASB, NIV). The idea is continued in the next sentence, “At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.” They handled their rebuke and correction of sin properly. They accepted that they had done wrong and are quickly responding with a godly response of grief, eagerness, diligence, and longing for what is right. This is what true repentance looks like. Godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret. There is no regret at the end of this process. There is just joy. Joy that sin was confronted. Joy that the sin was responded to with godly grief. Joy that repentance occurred. Joy in the salvation of the soul.
Worldly Grief Leads To Death
But I want us to consider that worldly grief leads to death. What does that look like? Any response that is not the response that Paul just described is worldly grief and not true repentance. When a person is confronted by their sins and their response is excuses, deflection, anger, bitterness, resentment, self-pity, wounded pride, withdrawing from others, defensiveness, self-justification, and the like then you are not seeing repentance. Friends, it does not matter if they say the words that they repent. It does not matter if they come forward and claim repentance on the front pew, if we see excuses, anger at others, resentment at being confronted, defensiveness, or any of the other above responses, it is not godly grief leading to true repentance. The false repentance has a different motive. The motive is to relieve the stress on their life and improve their own circumstances. True repentance does not care about the consequences but just wants things to be made right. False repentance is offered to get people off their backs and to try to improve their own life circumstances.
The scriptures exemplify this problem in the life of Saul. Saul sins in 1 Samuel 15 when he does not obey God’s command to utterly destroy all of the Amalekites. Samuel comes to Saul to convict him of his sin. Saul does not see that he has done anything wrong and Samuel continues to impress on him that Saul has sinned. Listen to what Saul finally says to Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:24-30.
Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.” 26 And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” 27 As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. 28 And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. 29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” 30 Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the Lord your God.” (1 Samuel 15:24–30 ESV)
Why does Samuel not receive Saul’s confession? It sounds like repentance! But where the desire to obey the voice of the Lord? Where is the zeal for God? Where is the earnestness for godliness? Where is the change of heart? We see none of it. The words were right. But there was no repentance. Words are not repentance. He wants to be honored before the people. Do not embarrass me in front of everyone else. But this is not true repentance and it is not godly grief.
Are we helping the person if we receive a person back who is exhibiting worldly grief? Are we helping the person who will not show true repentance by receiving the person back? No. This is why Samuel does what he does. Just because you say sorry does not mean your soul is not still in jeopardy. Your conviction of sin will cause you to radically change your life. Zeal and longing will be obvious. Changes will be visible. Doing everything needed to get right with God will be at the forefront of their lives. We are not helping a person nor rescuing their soul if we accept worldly grief. We must encourage true repentance so that the soul can be saved.
When Zacchaeus was confronted with sin, listen to what he says:
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8–10 ESV)
What zeal! What longing! What earnestness! What fear! What justice! This is what repentance looks like. We need to demand this of ourselves. When we sin, this is what we must do to deal with our sins. Do not treat your sins as simply saying sorry to God. Repentance strives to do right going forward and desires to right what has been done wrong. Repentance looks to make radical life changes so those sins are not committed again. This is the godly grief that produces repentance leading to salvation. May we truly have repentant hearts and bear fruit worthy of repentance.