Every once in a while, one of my children will misbehave. (Shocker.) Often when this happens, I will catch them. Frankly, my kids aren’t very bright about their misbehavior, having not yet learned the art of concealing their rebellion. (“No, dad, I didn’t eat the cake that was on the counter,” said my chocolate-mouthed progeny.)
When my kids misbehave, my judgment is both swift and merciful. (Usually.) Most of the time, the severity of the punishment I’ll hand out is shaped by two things. The first thing I consider is, how bad was the crime itself? (We take cake-stealing seriously in my house.) The greater the gravity of the crime, the greater the punishment.
The second question I ask is, what kind of attitude does the perpetrator demonstrate when confronted with the evidence of his/her wrongdoing? Often, when caught, my kids will demonstrate a fair amount of remorse. There might be tears. Guilt and shame will stain their faces. This can be accompanied by excuses, or it can come with an apology. But however it is presented, remorse always stops short of what I really long to see in my kids when they mess up. Remorse, no matter how emphatically or sincerely it is communicated, is something ultimately quite different from repentance. As a parent, repentance is really what I want when my kids blow it.
Remorse, no matter how emphatically or sincerely it is communicated, is something quite different from repentance.
The Lord desires the same thing from us. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to the church in Corinth about an earlier letter from him which caused the Corinthians grief. Paul needed to rebuke the sinful attitudes and actions of the Corinthian believers, and to do so was painful (2 Cor 7:8). Yet that pain grieved the Corinthians into repenting (7:9). This is therefore a cause for celebration, Paul says. He explains this principle, in 2 Corinthians 7:10: For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
The Corinthians’ grief over their sin was “godly grief” because it produced repentance, a repentance that ultimately confirmed their salvation. On the other end of the spectrum is “worldly grief.” This looks more like my children when they regret getting caught, but don’t truly grieve over their sin – specifically, the way their sin dishonors me, their father. Such worldly grief does not produce repentance. While it might look sincere and even resemble repentance in some key ways (“he seems really sorry for what he did”), it leads, in the end, to death.
Godly Grief vs. Worldly Grief
What are the key differences between godly grief (true repentance from sin) and worldly grief (mere regret over sin)?
At the most basic level, worldly grief is concerned about the consequences of sin, whereas godly grief is concerned with the sin itself. Someone consumed by worldly grief will seem quite broken by their sin, but their focus is on the way that sin has negatively impacted their life. Someone consummed by godly grief, on the other hand, is concerned more by how their sin has dishonored the holy and righteous character of God.
With worldly grief, as soon as the consequences of sin disappear, the sin reappears. Perhaps the form of the sin changes, but the same root cause remains. With godly grief, however, there is genuine disgust over the sin. Thus godly grief produces real repentance. This happens because godly grief focuses on the deepest result of sin – a loss of communion with the Lord himself. Godly grief will treasure and prioritize the restoration of that communion with God, whereas worldly grief will be content with the appearance of restoration.
Finally, godly grief destroys regret. Guilt and shame are truly and legitimately gone, because godly grief always involves great confidence in the gospel. This is why Paul can say, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (7:10). True, godly grief over sin reckons that sin nailed to the cross of Christ. It acknowledges that the sin itself was so bad as to require the cross, and believes in faith the sinner to be so loved as to enjoy the benefits of the cross. It says, “What I have done is really so bad that Jesus had to die for me, but I am really so loved that Jesus chose to die for me.” Such confidence in the gospel means that the regret, or remorse, over sin is wiped out. All occasion for regret is gone, because in its place is a boasting in the cross and a delight in the imputed righteousness of Christ.
Godly grief acknowledges that the sin itself was so bad as to require the cross, and believes in faith the sinner to be so loved as to enjoy the benefits of the cross. It says, “What I have done is really so bad that Jesus had to die for me, but I am really so loved that Jesus chose to die for me.”
In the end, the kindness of the Lord invites us to true, godly repentance (see Romans 2:4). Seeing the difference between remorse and repentance, is there something that you have done that you regret, but that you need to repent of now?