Studies in Second Corinthians
The Church lives by perpetual repentance. Luther summarized his concerns for the church and the Gospel in the first of his ninety-five theses, in which he states that “penance” is not an outward mechanical performance, but an inner attitude of mind which continues throughout life.
The clarion call of John the Baptizer “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” sounds out of place in modern ears. There is very little concern for true repentance. Modern preaching has a flavor of political correctness as it avoids any mention of sin and any negative connotation invoked by calling for a turning from sin. Part of this results from the fact that society has minimized sin and destroyed the reality of accountability and responsibility to God. “The “god of this world” has blinded the minds of people so that they do not realize their spiritual needs and impotence.
In his first letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul had dealt very sternly with sins troubling the Corinthian congregation. In particular he had warned them not to tolerate the behavior of the man who was living with his father’s wife. He commands them to deliver this person to Satan. This was not done in a spirit of self-righteousness but out of a genuine concern for an individual caught in sin. The apostle had to lay it on the line with plain and strong words. He regretted that he had to discipline the congregation, but this was necessary for their own good. In verse eight Paul writes: “For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; through I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while” (2 Cor. 7:8). Paul was sorry that his strong words caused the congregation pain, but it was necessary for the greater good of the congregation.
The aim of Paul’s strong rebuke was that the congregation be brought to true repentance. They recognized that their attitude and conduct were contrary to God’s will. They responded with true repentance. Titus had brought to the apostle this comforting report of the Corinthian congregation’s repentance. Paul rejoiced “not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner” (2 Cor. 7:9).
Paul distinguishes between “godly sorrow” and “the sorrow of the world.” In both cases there is a feeling of guilt and sorrow, but the result of these two sorrows is worlds apart. The “sorrow of the world” is simply the feeling of guilt for having done something wrong. For instance, many children are sorry because they have been caught doing something wrong.
Sorrow which is only guilt produces only death. In the Bible two examples of this “sorrow of the world” are King Saul and Judas. King Saul killed himself (1 Sam. 31:4) because of the sorrow produced by losing the battle with the Philistines and being wounded in the process. This sorrow was a result of Saul’s disobedience of God’s command and his rejection by God (1 Sam. 15). Judas is another example of sorrow over sin that leads to death: “Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that he had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ And they said, ‘What is that to us? You see to it! Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself” (Mt. 27:3-5). It is a terrible thing when guilt and sorrow over sin lead only to despair and death. The world has no answers for this sorrow over sin.
The Sorrow That Is From God
There is however a “godly sorrow.” This sorrow is from God and leads a person to repentance over his sins and to faith in Jesus Christ for forgiveness. Godly repentance includes not only sorrow and guilt over sin. It includes faith which trusts in Jesus Christ for free forgiveness. This sorrow leads a person, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to Jesus and the cross. This godly sorrow brings a repentance that leads to salvation.
There are many examples in the Bible of this godly sorrow. In contrast to King Saul and his sorrow over death, we have the example of King David. David sinned against God when he committed murder and adultery. David’s sorrow over sin led to the blessed knowledge of God’s forgiveness. “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5).
David found relief from the guilt of his terrible sins by confessing those sins to God and rejoiced in the fact that God does not impute iniquity. In Psalm 51 David confessed his sins in true repentance. “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me” (Ps. 51:3). David in repentance turned to Jesus for forgiveness.”Purge me with hyssop, and I will be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones You have broken my rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities” (Ps. 51:7-9).
In contrast to Judas and his sorrow unto death, we also have the example of Peter. Peter sinned as grievously as Judas when he denied Jesus, not once but three times. Peter also felt sorrow over his denial. But his repentance led him to that godly sorrow which trusts in the blood of Jesus for total forgiveness. Jesus at the Sea of Galilee restored Peter to apostleship.
This godly sorrow manifests itself in the faith-life of the forgiven. “For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: what diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Cor. 7:11).
It is sometimes difficult for a pastor to preach the law to his congregation. It is difficult to cause pain by plainly warning individuals about the reality of their sins. And yet it is necessary so that the Holy Spirit can produce that godly sorrow over sin which leads to salvation.
The faithful pastor also needs to proclaim the free forgiveness of Christ to real sinners. If the Gospel is not proclaimed, the sorrow produced by the law will only lead to guilt and eternal death. The Holy Spirits needs to produce in us a true sense of the magnitude of our sin and the reality of our rebellion against God. The Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel leads us to godly sorrow that trusts in Jesus Christ for full and free forgiveness.
One of the beautiful and perhaps unappreciated parts of the Lutheran liturgy is the emphasis on the need to confess our sins to God and the assurance of God’s forgiveness for those who repent of their sins.
May your sorrow lead to everlasting life through Jesus Christ. For the Church lives by perpetual “godly” repentance.
–Pastor John Schierenbeck