Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
There was a great deal of trouble in the church of Corinth. There was division among the members, immorality the likes of which was not even found in the pagan community, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, as well as false doctrine touching the resurrection.
The apostle Paul had dealt with these problems very firmly in his first epistle to the Corinthians, giving necessary and appropriate rebukes. Paul rejoiced when he learned that this letter made the Corinthians grieve. He rejoiced not simply because they were made sorry but because they were made sorry after a godly manner. They sorrowed unto repentance. Paul rejoiced at this kind of sorrow in Corinth because “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of.”
It is very well possible that this was a proverb often used in the New Testament church. There is a very important truth expressed in this proverb. On the one hand, godly sorrow works repentance, which results in salvation. And those who attain this salvation will never repent (regret) their repentance. On the other hand, the sorrow of the world works death. The truth of this proverb made Paul rejoice in the sorrow of the Corinthians.
And what of our sorrow? We all sorrow. Is it the godly sorrow that works repentance to salvation? Or is it the sorrow of the world that works death?
There is much sorrow in life. The creation is under the curse because of sin. This results in much pain and suffering. There is the pain of sickness, poverty, war, broken relationships, loneliness, death … and the list goes on. This suffering comes on the righteous as well as on the wicked. And with that pain comes sorrow, both for the righteous and for the wicked. Such, however, is not the focus of this passage.
The focus is rather on the sorrow connected with sin. Sin clings to every one of us. The world without Jesus Christ is totally depraved, so that all it can do is sin. And these sins are becoming increasingly more abominable. But even the saints of God, who are redeemed in the blood of Christ, sin. The work of grace is not finished in them. They have still a sinful nature. The result is that they daily stumble into sin, sometimes into great sin. And in connection with that sin, there is sorrow. Certainly born again children of God sorrow over their sin. Their sorrow is the godly sorrow mentioned in this passage. But this passage also speaks of the sorrow of the world, i.e., a sorrow that the world has in connection with sin.
What is this godly sorrow of the saint? And what is this godly sorrow in contrast to the sorrow of the world?
The term “godly sorrow” is literally “sorrow according to God.” This speaks of a sorrow that is according to a certain standard. And that standard is God. There are several things we can say about God in this regard. God is the God of all perfection and virtue. For that reason He hates all sin and delights in all righteousness. In fact, He grieves over the sin of His people. For this reason we are admonished in Ephesians 4:30, “And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” Now a sorrow that is according to God is a sorrow that reflects God’s perfections and His attitude toward sin. It is a sorrow that reflects His hatred of sin and grief of sin. In short, it is a deep sorrow over sin itself.
To understand this more clearly, we must bear in mind that this sorrow according to God results from God’s renewing grace. Those who are renewed in Jesus Christ by the grace of God have the beginnings of God’s perfections, so that with God they delight in all righteousness and hate all sin. For that reason they also grieve over sin. They grieve when they see sin around them—in the world, in the church, in their children. But especially do they grieve when they find sin in themselves. By their sin they have offended the God whom they have come to love. They have brought shame to Him, rather than glory. And by their sin they have hurt their neighbor, whom they in Christ love for God’s sake. What grief this brings to them.
The sorrow of the world is quite different. The term “sorrow of the world” speaks of a sorrow that arises out of the world. For that reason it is also a sorrow that is characterized by the wickedness of this world. This is a sorrow that grieves not over the fact of sin but only over the evil consequences of sin.
Sin has consequences. Every sin has consequences. This is because God judges sin. Sometimes these consequences are terrible. Under the judgment of God sin has ruined marriages, destroyed families, brought disease, inflicted penalties…. And all sin leads to hell. The sorrow of the world is a sorrow over these terrible consequences of sin. Because of its depravity, the world hates all righteousness and delights in sin. This remains true even under the most severe judgment of God. So long as the wicked remains in his depravity, he will delight in his sin. But over the devastating consequences of his sin he grieves.
Godly sorrow worketh repentance.
Repentance is a change of mind, a change of heart. It presupposes that you once considered sin to be a good thing. For that reason you desired sin and delighted in it. But now, after the sin is committed, you have a change of mind. What you once thought was so good, you now see as horrible. What once seemed so wise, you now see as terribly foolish. And you wish you hadn’t done it.
There are two elements in true repentance. First, there is the seeking of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. One who is repentant wants to be forgiven by God and reconciled to Him. This leads him to confess his sins and to flee to the cross in prayer to find the covering of Christ’s atoning blood. But true repentance is also a turning away from sin. One who is repentant doesn’t want to continue in his sin. He wants more than ever to turn way from it in order to walk in righteousness. This leads him to the cross to find the power of Jesus Christ to turn from his sin back to God.
Obviously you will not find this repentance in the world. The world in its depravity sorrows not over sin but only over the consequences of sin. The world delights in sin. For that reason the world is without repentance. It does not seek forgiveness and reconciliation with God. You will not find the world on its knees at the cross. Nor does the world seek to turn from its sin unto righteousness in the power of Jesus Christ. It is true that when the evil consequences of sin become unacceptable, the world will turn from its sinful behavior. This, however, is not a genuine repentance. It is not a turning away from sin to God in righteousness. It is a mere avoidance of a particular sin in order to enjoy other sins in which the world delights.
Godly sorrow, however, works repentance. Where there is godly sorrow there is hatred of sin. Where there is godly sorrow, there is tremendous grief of soul that one has offended God and hurt his neighbor. This sorrow leads one to the cross to find forgiveness in the blood of Jesus Christ and to find the power to turn from sin unto God in righteousness.
Godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of. The sorrow of the world, however, works death.
Notice the contrast between salvation and death. Death is obviously the eternal death of hell. Salvation, then, is the salvation of final glory in heaven.
Godly sorrow works repentance to salvation. This indicates that godly sorrow results in salvation. The reason is obvious. Godly sorrow leads one to the cross to find reconciliation and the power to live a new life. This is the one and only way to the salvation of heaven. Another way there is not. However, the sorrow of the world works death. The world in its sorrow has only remorse over the evil consequences of sin. Its sorrow leads not to the cross but to an avoidance of certain sins whose judgments become unacceptable, in order that it may indulge in other sins. This is the way that surely leads to hell.
Godly sorrow works repentance to salvation not to be repented of. This means that there will be no regrets on the part of those who in godly sorrow repent of their sins. How many sinful pleasures must be given up for those who walk the way of repentance! How many responsibilities and burdens true repentance adds to those who are given to godly sorrow! Yet the joys of salvation are so great that the repentant sinner never has any regrets. When one day he walks the streets of the New Jerusalem, there will be no regrets. The way of repentance put him on a narrow way less trod. There were may sacrifices and hardship. But it leads him to the glory of heaven. And it was worth it all.
Regret will be known only by the world. Their delight in sin led them to a life of impenitence. They would not give up the pleasures of sin, except in those cases where the judgment of God became too severe. They sorrowed after the consequences of sin, but continued in their sin for the sake of sin’s pleasure. When one day they receive their just reward in hell, there will be only regrets. The torments of hell will overshadow all the good times of sin. All there will be left will be eternal regrets.
What is the nature of your sorrow?
Sorrow with a godly sorrow that works repentance to salvation!
You will never regret it!