5. Biblical repentance must be distinguished from worldly or fleshly repentance.
Slide 5 of 10
Nowhere is this difference more readily seen than in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7:8-12. Paul had written what we call his “severe” letter to the Corinthians. It was “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears” that he penned this obviously painful missive (2 Cor. 2:4). He evidently spoke forcefully and unequivocally about the nature of their sin and the need for repentance. In doing so, he ran the risk of alienating them and ending all hope for future fellowship. Whereas he initially regretted having to write it, he later rejoiced,
“not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 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. So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 7:8-12).
The letter stirred in them a grief or sorrow for sin that was “godly,” or more literally, “according to God” (vv. 9, 10, 11), by which he means that it was agreeable to the mind of God or that it was a sorrow prompted by the conviction that their sin had offended God, and not simply Paul. This he contrasts with “worldly grief” (v. 10) that is evoked not because one has transgressed a glorious and holy God but simply because one got caught. Worldly grief is essentially self-pity for having been exposed and having thus lost stature, favor, or respect in the eyes of men (not to mention money!). Godly grief is the sort that we saw in Psalm 51:4 where David cried out, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”
If the Corinthians had formerly been apathetic and lackluster in their response to the apostle, now they are earnest (v. 11a) in their zeal to do what was right. If before they had denied their duplicity, this time they were eager “to clear” themselves (v. 11b), not wanting their failures to reflect poorly on Christ and the gospel. Paul’s letter, through the Spirit, had set ablaze an “indignation” (v. 11c) toward themselves for not defending Paul and for having permitted the situation to get so out of hand (and perhaps also against the wrongdoer for the way his actions constituted a brazen defiance of Paul’s authority).
All told, it was initially an unpleasant experience for everyone concerned. But in the end, it yielded the harvest of repentance, restoration, and joy.
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