"Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry—but that you sorrowed to repentance: for you were made sorry after a godly manner. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." 2 Corinthians 7:9-10
In his former Epistle, the Apostle had sharply rebuked the Corinthians for sins which had not only been committed by them—but tolerated among them. Though it be far from a pleasant task—yet it is the bounden duty of the ministers of the Gospel—to rebuke sin when it is found in those under their charge. "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2). In this instance, it pleased God to bless the faithful admonition of His servant, so that those to whom he wrote had been brought to mourn over, and right their wrongs. It is to this repenting of theirs, that Paul here alludes, in the course of which he draws an important distinction between carnal and spiritual sorrowing over sin, a distinction which it is most essential we should duly note and take to heart.
"Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry—but that you sorrowed to repentance." The preacher takes no more delight when he witnesses the anguish of those who are under conviction of sin, than does the surgeon when he inflicts pain on his patients. The servants of Christ experience no pleasure in looking upon the distress of their hearers: it is only because the sinner's sorrow is a hopeful sign of his return to God and of his future happiness as the outcome—that they rejoice at such fruits of their labors. A parent, when he sees his child weeping because of his offenses, sincerely rejoices, however much he sympathizes in his grief. So, too, was the Apostle made happy when he perceived that the Corinthians had sorrowed to good effect, namely, unto repentance or reformation of conduct. Here is proof that evangelical repentance is not only a change of heart—but a transformation of life as well.
"You sorrowed to repentance" distinguishes two things which are often confounded. Sorrow for sin and repentance are by no means identical. Sorrow for sin may be awakened in a man—or even in an assembly—yet without any real or lasting benefit therefrom. There is a grief (from wounded pride) which produces resentment and anger against the one who reproves our wicked ways. There is a sorrow (intensified by Satan) which results in nothing but melancholy and despair. Sorrow in itself, is not repentance; neither is remorse, self-condemnation, nor external reformation. True, these are all the attendants and consequences; but repentance itself is a turning from sin to holiness. In the case here before us, the Apostle rejoiced over a sorrow in the Corinthians, which was followed by a putting away of those evils for which he had reproved them.
"You sorrowed to repentance." Here, then, is a statement which supplies us with an invaluable criterion, by means of which the quality of all real and lasting sorrow may be estimated. Grief may arise, and even reach a passionate extreme—and yet be as unproductive of any transforming effect upon its subjects—as the summer dew upon the rock. Such is a self-pitying sorrow—and not a self-abasing sorrow. There is a sorrowing over folly and its consequences, which is nothing more than self-pity—and not sincere remorse towards God. The vital question, then, is, has our sorrow for sin issued in a genuine repentance? Biblical repentance is a real change of heart; it is a radical change of views, feelings and aims—resulting in a complete and lasting change of life. Unless our sorrow causes us to put away the evils which formerly characterized us, then it is a repentance which needs to be "repented of," for it is fruitless and valueless.
"For you were made sorry after a godly manner." This is explanatory of the previous clause, making known to us how it was, that the Corinthians came to sorrow "to repentance." How it behooves us, then, to diligently inquire as to exactly what is meant by this sorrowing "after a godly manner," or as the margin gives it, "according to God." Godly sorrow is one which has respect wholly to God, for it is one which He demands, one which He produces, and one which leads to Himself.
First, it is such a sorrow as the thrice Holy One requires from those upon whom He would bestow pardon of their sins. This is true alike of our first conversion, and of each subsequent recovery from backsliding: "repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 3:19).
Though this godly sorrow to repentance is not the ground of our salvation—yet it is both a part of and a necessary condition to it. Those who repent are saved; and all the impenitent perish (Luke 13:5). It is that inward change in which salvation largely consists. Grief and humiliation for sin as sin—sin against God—are an essential part of those "fruits fit for repentance" (Matthew 3:8).
Second, this "godly sorrow" is produced by Divine power.Godly sorrow is essentially a supernatural grace. No man is born with godly sorrow in his heart—as he is born with a tongue in his head. No, it is a seed of God's own setting, a flower of His planting. It is a heavenly offspring. "God makes my heart soft" said holy Job (23:16), for none but He can make the heart tender under a sight and sense of sin. Nature can easily make one weep over worldly crosses and losses—but only Divine grace can move us to mourn over sin. That godly sorrow to repentance is produced by the immediate operations of the Lord, is clear from the order in "Surely after I was turned—I repented; and after I was instructed—I smote upon my thigh" (Jer. 31:19): note well it is not "after I turned," but "after I was turned." That is the language of one who has just been renewed, quickened afresh by the Word, and who now sees light in God's light.
Third, it is such a sorrow as leads to God.All sin is a departing from God, and while the guilt of it remains upon the conscience, we cannot be easy in His presence. Witness Adam, who as soon as he heard the voice of the Lord God, sought to hide himself (Gen. 3:8). But when godly sorrow is wrought in the heart by God—it is the means of recovery to Him, for it makes us conscious of our distance from God and of our having dishonored and displeased Him. Necessarily so, for godly sorrow is "to repentance," and repentance is a forsaking of sin so as to walk in newness of life. A contrite heart instinctively turns unto God, for it is the only one which possesses any title to His mercy: "A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm 51:17). Indeed He will not, for His promise is, "To this man will I look, even to him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at My Word" (Isaiah 66:2). Such a sorrowing to repentance is approved by God, for it is the product of His own grace and accomplishes its end by restoring to Himself.
It is by carefully noting the contrasts pointed by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, that we learn to distinguish between things which radically differ. Sometimes these contrasts are implied by a qualifying term, at other times they are more expressly stated. Thus we read of "faith which works by love" (Galatians 5:6). That is—an unselfish faith, which springs from a spiritual affection, which is in contrast from a self-seeking faith which proceeds from the flesh. Romans 5:5 tells of a hope which "does not disappoint," which is the opposite of the hypocrite's hope, which "shall perish" (Job 8:13). Another discriminating expression is "sincere love" (2 Corinthians 6:6; 1 Peter 1:22), which denotes there is a fictitious love, such as was displayed by Judas when he betrayed the Savior with a kiss. In like manner the Apostle speaks of the Corinthian saints being "made sorry after a godly manner" (2 Corinthians 7:9), which suggests there is another kind of mourning over sin, which has its roots in nothing higher than mere nature.
"For godly sorrow works repentance to salvation, not to be repented of; but the sorrow of the world works death" (2 Corinthians 7:10). Here the contrast implied in the former verse is definitely stated, "godly sorrow" being placed over against the "sorrow of the world." Before we consider the latter, let us offer a few more remarks upon the former.
We pointed out that this "godly sorrow" is such a one as is required by the thrice holy God, which He produces, and which leads the soul to Him. Godly sorrow, then, is the badge of all the heirs of Heaven—and God Himself produces it in the hearts of His people. It needs to be pointed out that He uses means in bringing it to pass—means suited to employ with moral agents, for so far from treating with us as stocks and stones—He ever draws with the "cords of a man" (Hosea 11:4).
First, "godly sorrow" issues from a broken and contrite heart, which is something that no man possesses by nature. On the contrary, the heart of the unregenerate is like "the nether millstone." A miracle of grace has to be wrought—before "a heart of flesh" is imparted. This is accomplished by means of the Word, under the immediate operations of the Holy Spirit. "Is not My Word like as a fire? says the Lord; and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces!" (Jer. 23:29). This speaks of a humbling and painful experience—the travail preceding the birth.
Every genuine conversion is one in which the Word is received "in much affliction" (1 Thessalonians 1:6). That "affliction" is caused by the Truth enabling the soul to view sin as God sees it—its true nature, its heinousness, its infinite ill-desert. As sin is viewed in God's light, the soul is overwhelmed with sorrow and shame, for having offended against the Divine Majesty: "against You—You only, have I sinned!" (Psalm 51:4). An illustration of this is found in Acts 2. Under the faithful preaching of Peter, applied by the power of the Spirit, his hearers were "pricked in their heart" and said "what shall we do?" (v. 37).
Second, "godly sorrow" issues from spiritual considerations.As the Spirit applies the Truth to the conscience and understanding, the soul is brought under the power of due apprehensions of God's perfections, and of his relation to Him. Horror and grief fill the heart—when there is the recognition that a gracious God has been offended, a righteous Law violated, a precious Christ dishonored, the Holy Spirit grieved. This it is, which overwhelms the soul with shame, and bows it into the dust. This it is which causes the renewed to be "pricked in their heart"—the realization that they have displeased Him whose favor they account more than life. Therefore when it is said, "the goodness of God leads you to repentance" (Romans 2:4), it means not only that it is His gracious operations which produce the repentance—but also that it is the heart's piercing consciousness of having sinned against such goodness—which results in a radical reformation of our ways. David and Manasseh, Peter and Paul are examples of those possessed of godly sorrow.
Third, "godly sorrow" always springs from an evangelical faith.Godly sorrow proceeds from faith—as the stream from the fountain, as the branch from the root. Proof of this is found in "they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced—and they shall mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son" (Zech. 12:10). All gracious mourning and repentance, proceeds from believing. Nothing breaks the heart of a sinner—like trustful looking to the Cross. The tears of godly sorrow—ever drop from the eyes of faith. The more we are enabled to look by faith upon a pierced Christ—the more shall we mourn over our sins for having nailed Him to the tree. No one can stand under the shinings of dying Love—with a frozen heart. Well did Luther ask, "What are all the palaces of the world—compared to a contrite heart?" In the former reside the princes of the earth, in the latter dwells the Prince of peace.
This spiritual mourning for sin is evidenced by its effect: "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation." In this verse "repentance" signifies reformation or walking in newness of life. Godly sorrow humbles the mind, meekens the heart, bends the will, causing the soul to turn from sin with horror and hatred—unto God. Unlawful imaginations and wrongful actions are unsparingly judged in the light of God's Word, and there is a consequent turning from the paths of folly—to walk in the ways of righteousness. Thus the outcome is—conversion in the case of an alien sinner, restoration for a wandering saint. "Godly sorrow" is not only one that is concerned for the Divine glory and is grieved where God is dishonored—but it is also one which has a dependence upon His mercy, counting upon His pardoning grace, and therefore does it humbly but trustfully plead such a promise as, "If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
"For godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of." This last clause "not to be repented of" tells of the durability of that which issues from this spiritual mourning, and as no effect can be greater than its cause—it announces the lastingness of "godly sorrow." Godly sorrow is a permanent grace. So long as a real Christian continues sinning—he cannot but continue grieving: "my sin is ever before me" (Psalm 51:3) must be the language of one with a quickened conscience. Not until he reaches Heaven—shall all tears be removed from the saint's eyes. Nor does any believer ever regret repenting, no matter what anguish of soul may occasion and accompany it, for true repentance is a turning from sin—the cause of all disquietude—to our true Resting-place. The sorrow of a worldling is of short duration—but the streams of spiritual contrition last as long as sin indwells the believer!