Godly Sorrow Leads to Repentance
“For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” 2 Cor. 7:10
There is a broader context surrounding this verse that is important to understand. This is Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In his first letter, Paul had confronted them about various situations that needed correction. For example, there were divisions where some were claiming to be “of Paul” and others “of Apollos”, showing their carnal mindedness. There was immorality where a man was having sexual relations with his father’s wife. He confronted them about their fighting and disagreements among each other, with some ending up in a secular court. He also corrected the disorder in their gatherings and misunderstandings about the use of spiritual gifts, and there where various other issues that he dealt with. Towards the end of the first letter, he reminds them that the ultimate goal is love, writing what is now a very well know chapter that defines love (1 Cor. 13): “Love is patient and kind….etc.”. At the end of the letter, Paul deals with a false teaching where some were saying that there is no resurrection from the dead, this being in direct contrast to the core message of the Gospel, that Jesus died and was resurrected, giving us the promised hope of also being resurrected after we die, attaining eternal life.
This first letter must have been both difficult for Paul to write, and difficult for the Corinthians to receive. Correction is never pleasant. I find it interesting that Paul decided to deal with these issues in a letter sent with Timothy, rather than going to them in person. (1 Cor. 4: 14 – 17) “I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me. For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.” In the second letter Paul explains why he didn’t want to go there in person. (2 Cor. 2:1-4) “But I determined this within myself, that I would not come again to you in sorrow. For if I make you sorrowful, then who is he who makes me glad but the one who is made sorrowful by me? And I wrote this very thing to you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow over those from whom I ought to have joy, having confidence in you all that my joy is the joy of you all. For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you, with many tears, not that you should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have so abundantly for you.” It seems that Paul wanted to have it be a joyful occasion when he met with them in person, rather than a painful time of correction. Clearly, Paul didn’t like to have to correct and admonish them, much like a father who needs to discipline his children. It’s work that is unpleasant and challenging, but must be done for the sake of the children.
The bigger picture is that Paul’s correction had brought sorrow to the Corinthians as he admonished them for various issues. It was up to the Corinthians how they would respond to this correction. Would it anger them? Would it turn them against Paul? Would they become arrogant and rebel? Or would they receive it humbly and see it in the light of the truth? The godly sorrow was a result of them humbling themselves and receiving Paul’s correction in the light of the truth that he presented in his admonishment, and aligning this with their consciences. This kind of sorrow then leads to repentance or a change of our minds and hearts.
We live in a society that shuns all unpleasantness. We don’t like to take the foul tasting medicine to relieve the illness. Perhaps the only exception to this is the pain we are willing to endure in physical exercise to get into better shape. Thus the expression “no pain – no gain”, but we typically don’t take this attitude for most of the other unpleasant things in our lives.
This aversion to unpleasantness is part of what keeps us from receiving correction, the other part is our pride. We don’t like to be told that we are wrong. We don’t like to think that we have flaws, and especially we don’t want to admit to them. Humility, the opposite of pride and arrogance, is needed to receive admonishment that leads to a changed heart.
Let’s look at the 2 Cor. 7:14 again: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” Notice that it says, “…repentance leading to salvation”. The word “salvation” in the Greek is “soteria” meaning deliverance, preservation, safety, salvation. Paul uses this same word earlier in 2 Cor. 6 when he quotes Isaiah 49: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You”. Paul goes on to say that this is that acceptable time; this is the day of salvation. In Isaiah 49, this is a reference to the Christ and what He will accomplish, it goes on to say: “I will preserve You (referring to Jesus) and give You as a covenant to the people, to restore the earth, to cause them to inherit the desolate heritages; that You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ ” I believe that Paul is communicating to the Corinthians that there is deliverance from bondage when we are corrected and we repent. Perhaps the better translation of the Greek word would be deliverance: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to deliverance, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
It is clear that Paul’s intention is for the good of the Corinthians who he loves as his spiritual children. He recognizes that their immorality and carnal ways have them in bondage. Although painful and unpleasant, he must admonish them to correct their issues. In his second letter he is relieved that they had received his admonishment and allowed a godly sorrow to cause the needed changes in their ways and thinking.
The lesson for us is that we have a choice when we are corrected or when God exposes our sins. We can humbly receive the correction and allow a godly sorrow to cause a change in us, leading to deliverance from the bondage of the sin, or, we can resist or rebel, continuing in pride or fear of the pain, and not be delivered.
A few verses prior to this verse, at the end of chapter 6, Paul says this, confirming his true motive (2 Cor. 6:16 – 7:1):
“And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
‘I will dwell in them
And walk among them.
I will be their God,
And they shall be My people.’
‘Come out from among them
And be separate, says the Lord.
Do not touch what is unclean,
And I will receive you.’
‘I will be a Father to you,
And you shall be My sons and daughters,
Says the Lord Almighty.’
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
All of this is for our good, for our benefit, for our deliverance. The world does not see this, and thinks this is foolishness, but they remain in the worldly sorrow of sin that leads to death. The Lord has better things for His children, and the ultimate deliverance: eternal life.