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True Repentance, Part 2: Godly Grief Versus Worldly Grief

March 10, 2010

If we are to know whether or not our repentance is genuine, we must first examine the nature of our sorrow. Is our grief godly or carnal? The passage which gives the clearest demarcation of true remorse and worldly sorrow is 2 Corinthians 7:8-10:

8 For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it- though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. 9 As it is, I rejoice, 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. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.

Grief goes beyond mere emotions. It is not uncommon to feel guilt, shame, or regret when caught in a sin. Yet true grief is identified by one’s response to it. If one is godly, the shame that he experienced will lead him to humble himself before God. He will recognize that he has disgraced God and will earnestly desire to be restored to him. Mourning loss of communion between himself, God and others, he will grow to hate his sin. As William Cowper said “I hate the sin that made thee mourn and drove thee from my breast.” His grief will lead to repentance, which will result in salvation without regret. This occurs because the godly man turns away from his sin and focuses on the pardoning grace of God. He will recognize that he has received God’s mercy and forgiveness of his sin. John Calvin puts it this way:

“The sorrow of the world is, when men despond in consequence of earthly afflictions, and are overwhelmed with grief; while sorrow according to God is that which has an eye to God, while they reckon it the one misery — to have lost the favor of God; when, impressed with fear of His judgment, they mourn over their sins. This sorrow Paul makes the cause and origin of repentance. This is carefully to be observed, for unless the sinner be dissatisfied with himself, detest his manner of life, and be thoroughly grieved from an apprehension of sin, he will never betake himself to the Lord.”

Therefore godly grief is that remorse or sorrow which leads one to humbly repent to God. In the previous example of Peter in part 1, John 21 portrays his intimate restoration to Christ. Peter’s godly grief over denying him three times results in his humble triadic affirmation to shepherd Jesus’ flock.

Conversely, Paul describes worldly grief as leading to death. All emotions of shame and regret do not result in a humble repentance for those who experience ungodly sorrow. Instead, worldly grief leads to death because there is no restoration to God. Stuart Scott says that:

“Shallow remorse can involve: 1) sorrow over getting caught and being found out, 2) sorrow over the consequences in or of getting caught, 3) sorrow over the response of others. 4) The offering of an apology saying, “I’m sorry” without any mention of repentance or change and without asking forgiveness. 5) Trying to do penance by doing unrelated good things to make the consequences go away, to try to cancel out one’s wrong-doing, or to appease God. 6) Making at least some justification for the sin committed. 7) Complaining about the expectation of real change.”

In short, they do not hate their sin or desire to do what is necessary to truly reconcile severed relationships. Therefore, worldly grief is sorrow over the consequences of sin, yet without any remorse over dishonoring God. It leads to a focus on self and away from God. Judas felt great sorrow over his sin, but he never sought reconciliation to God. His grief was not from the recognition of the evil of his sin but from the punishment he would receive as a result of betraying innocent blood.

Another biblical example of worldly grief is King Saul. In 1 Samuel 15, God commanded Saul to go to battle against the Amalekites and to devote all of them to destruction. Saul was not to leave a single man or animal alive. After mustering his troops, Saul went to war with the Amalekites and God granted him victory over them. But Saul failed to keep his vow to God by sparing Agag, king of the Amalekites, and the best of the animals. As Samuel approached Saul, the king lied to Samuel saying that he had fulfilled God’s command. Samuel rebuked him for his disobedience. Saul then attempted to respond with false piety as he said that he saved the choicest animals to offer them as a sacrifice to God (rather than taking away from his own personal flock). Samuel was not convinced and told Saul that God had rejected him as king.

Overwhelmed with grief, Saul confessed his true motive – the people took the spoil rather than destroying it, and Saul feared them (v. 24). His desire to please man was greater than his desire to please God. Saul pleaded with Samuel to pardon his sin and return with him so that he could worship the Lord. Yet he was not truly interested in worshipping God, but being honored by Samuel before the eyes of men. When Samuel refused, Saul seized his robe and it tore. Again Saul begged Samuel to go with him before the people, this time Samuel agreed. His compliance was probably due to the fact that even though Saul was a sinful king, he was still anointed by God. Until another king took his place, he would serve as the spiritual representative of the people. Samuel’s allowance would protect the nation from following Saul’s example further. Saul was able to save face before the people, yet he was not allowed to carry out God’s command to destroy Agag and the remaining flocks. Samuel fulfilled this task.

Unlike his successor, David, he never truly humbled himself and repented to God. As a result of Saul’s worldly grief he was rejected by God and given an evil spirit to torment him. He eventually lost both his throne and his life because he feared man more than God (1 Chr. 10:13-14). This should lead us to ask a few questions of ourselves. Why do you feel sorrow over your sin? Is it because you fear man or consequences? Or is it because you are grieved by knowing that you have offended God? Do you really hate your sin? Are you willing to do what is necessary to be reconciled to God and those whom you have sinned against? In part 3, we’ll look at biblical instruction for how we are to repent, but in the mean time may we all be grieved over our sin, leading us to repent and place our trust in the only one who can restore without regret.


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