Great Texts of the Bible
For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation, a repentance which bringeth no regret: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.—2 Corinthians 7:10.
St. Paul expresses his satisfaction that the Corinthians had exhibited a genuine sorrow for a fault of which they had been guilty, and for which he had reproved them; a sorrow that had respect to God and not to man; a sorrow that resulted in real repentance, as exhibited in their confession of it before God, and in their subsequent anxious endeavours to remove the evil from among them. “Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye were made sorry unto repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly sort, that ye might suffer loss by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation, a repentance which bringeth no regret: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold, this selfsame thing, that ye were made sorry after a godly sort, what earnest care it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what longing, yea, what zeal, yea, what avenging. In everything ye approved yourselves to be pure in the matter.”
There are two kinds of sorrow, then. There is godly sorrow and there is the sorrow of the world. Look first at the latter.
The Sorrow of the World
1. There are various kinds of sorrow in the world, some of which work death, such as the bitter vexation, the utter despondency, the fierce disappointment which are occasioned by the loss of some prized object, or by being thwarted in some cherished scheme. These sometimes wear out the life or lead to self-destruction. It is not, however, any sorrow of this kind that St. Paul intends here by “sorrow of the world,” but, as the context shows, a sorrow that has some relation to sin. The world has its sorrow on account of sin, after its own way, and from its own standpoint; and it must be some sorrow of this kind that is here alluded to, else the point of the contrast between it and godly sorrow would be lost. For instance, there is the sorrow occasioned by the shame, exposure, infamy, loss, a man may have brought upon himself by some transgression. Of this kind was the sorrow of Saul when he said to Samuel, who had just predicted the loss of his kingdom for his disobedience, “I have sinned, yet honour me now before the elders of the people.” This sorrow becomes sometimes a fierce exasperation under the pressure of the consequences of sin. Such was the sorrow of Cain when, in the passion of his resentment at God’s sentence upon him, he cried, “My sin is greater than I can bear.” Or it passes into a gloomy, desponding hopeless remorse, into the very abandonment of despair. Such was the sorrow of Judas.
For sorrow is, in itself, a thing neither good nor bad; its value depends upon the spirit of the person on whom it falls. Fire will inflame straw, soften iron, or harden clay; its effects are determined by the object with which it comes in contact. Warmth develops the energies of life, or helps the progress of decay. It is a great power in the hot-house, a great power also in the coffin; it expands the leaf, matures the fruit, adds precocious vigour to vegetable life: and warmth, too, develops with tenfold rapidity the weltering process of dissolution. So too with sorrow. There are spirits in which it develops the seminal principle of life; there are others in which it prematurely hastens the consummation of irreparable decay.
When Dante descends to the Fifth Circle of the Inferno he finds there a black and loathsome marsh, made by the swarthy waters of the Stygian stream pouring down into it, dreary and turbid, through the cleft which they have worn out for themselves. And there, in the putrid fen, he sees the souls of those whom anger has ruined; and they are smiting and tearing and maiming one another in ceaseless, senseless rage. But there are others there, his master tells him, whom he cannot see, whose sobs make those bubbles that he may mark ever rising to the surface of the pool—others, plunged further into the filthy swamp. And what is the sin that has thrust them down into that uttermost wretchedness? “Fixed in the slime, they say, ‘Gloomy were we in the sweet air, that is gladdened by the sun, carrying sullen, lazy, smoke within our hearts; now lie we gloomy here in the black mire.’ This hymn they gurgle in their throats, for they cannot speak it in full words.” Surely it is a tremendous and relentless picture of unbroken sullenness—of wilful gloom that has for ever shut out light and love; of that death which the sorrow of the world worketh.1 [Note: F. Paget, The Spirit of Discipline, 51.]
2. The sorrow of the world is not a sorrow for sin as such, but rather for its consequences, whether immediate or ultimate. Loss of reputation or of health may have ensued; this occasions regret, but no real shame or grief for the cause of it is felt. Or the hand of death may be laid on the man, and then the spirit shivers and shudders at the dread hereafter, yet with no compunction or brokenness of heart for the sin. This kind of sorrow is followed by no real or permanent reformation. Mere dread of consequences, however acute or strong, while it may repress the outbreak of evil to some extent, touches not in the smallest degree the root of the thing, because it neither eradicates nor counteracts the love of sin. That remains in all its potency. Hence he who woke in the morning to all the miserable suffering of the previous night’s excess repeats that excess as soon as the reaction has passed away. And worse still, he who cried to God to have mercy on him and vowed amendment, thinking himself dying, has on his recovery gone back to all his vileness. Why? Because his sorrow was no contrition for sin, nor was the love of sin mortified in his heart.
Without energy, repentance is disease. He who can find nothing to do but weep for his sins will end by weeping because he has nothing to eat. Like Mackellar, Stevenson “knows nothing less respectable than the tears of drunkenness, and turns his back impatiently on this poor sight.” He is not afraid of the application of his principles to individual cases, and says plainly of Robert Burns: “He was still not perhaps devoted to religion, but haunted by it: and at a touch of sickness prostrated himself before God in what I can only call unmanly penitence.”2 [Note: John Kelman, The Faith of Robert Louis Stevenson, 236.]
A man who had stolen the pyx, and got frightened when justice was at his heels, might feel the sort of penitence which would induce him to run back in the dark and lay the pyx where the sexton might find it; but if in doing so he whispered to the Blessed Virgin that he was moved by considering the sacredness of all property, and the peculiar sacredness of the pyx, it is not to be believed that she would like him the better for it. Indeed, one often seems to see why the saints should prefer candles to words, especially from penitents whose skin is in danger.1 [Note: George Eliot, Felix Holt.]
The Spartan lad was taught that there was no wrong in anything he did, but that the wrong was in being found out. Consequently, when one lad had stolen a white pet fox, and hid it under his tunic, he allowed the fox to gnaw into his very breast, and yet made no sign. The theft of the fox was nothing, but being found out was everything! Regret for the consequences of sin, or the exposure of sin, or the penalties of sin, is no real element of a godly repentance.2 [Note: A. T. Pierson, Foundation Truths, 10.]
“Godly sorrow” is, literally rendered, “sorrow according to God,” which may mean either sorrow which has reference to God, or sorrow which is in accordance with His will—that is to say, which is pleasing to Him; for if it is the former, it will be the latter. God sees sin not in its consequences, but in itself—a thing infinitely evil, even if the consequences were happiness to the guilty instead of misery. So sorrow according to God is to see sin as God sees it. The grief of Peter was as bitter as that of Judas. He went out and wept bitterly; how bitterly none can tell but they who have learned to look on sin as God does. But in Peter’s grief there was an element of hope; and that sprang precisely from this—that he saw God in it all. Despair of self did not lead to despair of God.
We are all of us quite ready to say, “I have done wrong many a time”; but there are some of us who hesitate to take the other step, and say, “I have done sin.” Sin has for its correlative God. If there is no God there is no sin. There may be faults, there may be failures, there may be transgressions, breaches of the moral law, things done inconsistent with man’s nature and constitution, and so on; but if there be a God, then we have personal relations to that Person and His law; and when we break His law it is more than crime; it is more than fault; it is more than transgression; it is more than wrong; it is sin. It is when we lift the shutter off conscience, and let the light of God rush in upon our hearts and consciences, that we have the wholesome sorrow that worketh repentance and salvation and life.
I had offered to let my Dearest be free of me, and of any virtual engagement she might think there was; but she would not hear of it, not of that, the Noble Soul; but stood resolved to share my dark lot along with me, be [it] what it might. Alas, her love was never known completely to me, and how celestial it was, till I had lost her! “Oh for one five-minutes more of her,” I have often said, since April last, “to tell her with what perfect love, and admiration as of the beautifullest of known human souls, I did intrinsically always regard her!” But all minutes of the time are irrevocably past:—be wise, all ye living, and remember that time passes and does not return!1 [Note: Carlyle, Reminiscences, ii. 168.]
In the first week in May (about a fortnight after his wife’s tragically sudden death) Carlyle, who had hitherto desired to be left alone, sent me a message that he would like to see me. He came down to me into the library in his dressing-gown, haggard and as if turned to stone. He had scarcely slept, he said, since the funeral. He could not “cry.” He was stunned and stupefied. He had never realized the possibility of losing her. He had settled that he would die first, and now she was gone. From this time and onwards, as long as he was in town, I saw him almost daily. He was looking through her papers, her notebooks and journals, and old scenes came mercilessly back to him in vistas of mournful memory. In his long sleepless nights, he recognized too late what she had felt and suffered under his childish irritabilities. His faults rose up in remorseless judgment, and as he had thought too little of them before, so now he exaggerated them to himself in his helpless repentance. For such faults an atonement was due, and to her no atonement could now be made. He remembered, however, Johnson’s penance at Uttoxeter; not once, but many times, he told me that something like that was required from him, if he could see his way to it. “Oh!” he cried, again and again, “if I could but see her once more, were it but for five minutes, to let her know that I always loved her through all that. She never did know it, never.” If he could but see her again! His heart seemed breaking as he said it.1 [Note: J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle: Life in London, ii. 322.]
1. This sorrow is awakened by considerations that have respect to God as good and gracious. Its burden is not, “I have incurred the wrath of an angry God,” but, “I have displeased and grieved my Father, my Saviour.” Hence it is a sorrow for sin as such. It is not the thought of the penalty that oppresses, but of the fault itself, as a thing against God. It is not the father’s frown, but the father’s grieved look, that melts and subdues the offending child. Hence this sorrow is a real contrition, a brokenness of heart. Hence it is a self abhorring and a shame; its thought is, “Oh how could I have so displeased my God and Father, how sinful have I been, how weak and wayward is my heart!” Hence the longing and the cry of this sorrow is to be delivered from the power and pollution of sin. While it sues for pardon it supplicates for cleansing. Therefore it is a reclaiming sorrow, it brings back the soul to God and holiness.
Law and the fear of hell may startle into sorrow, and even lead to some kind of repentance. But it is the great power of Christ’s love and sacrifice that will really melt the heart into true repentance. You may hammer ice to pieces, but it is ice still. You may bray a fool in a mortar, and his folly will not depart from him. Dread of punishment may pulverize the heart, but not change it; and each fragment, like the smallest bit of a magnet, will have the same characteristics as the whole mass. But “the goodness of God leads to repentance,” as the prodigal is conquered and sees the true hideousness of the swine’s trough when he bethinks himself of the father’s love.
My husband’s eldest sister writes:—“Father was apt to be very strict, and would punish disobedience or other wrongdoing very heavily. But the rod never brought my brother Tom to repentance; he would stand any flogging without giving in, and father had to try another way. He had only to say,’ Tom, I see grey hairs on your mother’s head, and they are caused by your bad conduct,’ to bring the lad to sorrowful tears.”2 [Note: E. M. Champness, The Life-Story of Thomas Champness, 19.]
Fix in your minds—or rather ask God to fix in your minds—this one idea of an absolutely good God; good with all forms of goodness which you respect and love in man; good as you, and I, and every honest man, understand the plain word good. Slowly you will acquire that grand and all-illuminating idea; slowly and most imperfectly at best: for who is mortal man that he should conceive and comprehend the goodness of the infinitely good God! But see, then, whether, in the light of that one idea, all the old-fashioned Christian ideas about the relation of God to man; whether Providence, Prayer, Inspiration, Revelation, the Incarnation, the Passion, and the final triumph of the Son of God—whether all these, I say, do not seem to you, not merely beautiful, not merely probable, but rational, and logical, and necessary, moral consequences from the one idea of an Absolute and Eternal Goodness, the living Parent of the Universe.1 [Note: Charles Kingsley: Letters and Memories, ii. 310.]
2. “Godly sorrow worketh repentance.” What is repentance? A ready answer is, Repentance is sorrow for sin; but clearly this text draws a distinction between the two. There are very few of the great key-words of Christianity which have suffered more violent and unkind treatment, and have been more obscured by misunderstandings, than this great word. It has been weakened down into penitence, which, in the ordinary acceptation, means simply a regretful sense of our own evil. And it has been still further docked and degraded, both in its syllables and in its substance, into penance. But the “repentance” of the New Testament and of the Old Testament—one of the twin conditions of salvation—is neither sorrow for sin nor works of restitution and satisfaction, but it is, as the word distinctly expresses, a change of purpose in regard to the sin for which a man mourns.
Repentance is a principle of life, a new posture of mind, a new attitude toward God, a new attitude toward sin, a new attitude toward salvation. Feeling is not to be mistaken for repentance. There may be feeling that does not lead to repentance, and there may be repentance that is preceded by very little feeling. If you want to go from one room to another, it is important you should leave one room behind you and enter into the other, but it matters not how you get from one to the other, so long as you get there. And the great thing is this: if you have been living in sin, you want to get out of sin into God; and by what means or with what feeling you get out is of comparatively little consequence, so long as you get out. Repentance is the leaving of one thing behind you, and faith is the entering into something else before you. It is a change of mind or purpose, a complete turning about with reference to God and sin.
In Adam Bede, George Eliot represents the heroine Dinah Morris as thus pointing out to the unhappy Hetty Sorrel the conditions of true repentance: “God can’t bless you while you have one falsehood in your soul; His pardoning mercy can’t reach you until you open your heart to Him, and say, ‘I have done this great wickedness; O God, save me, make me pure from sin.’ While you cling to one sin and will not part with it, it must drag you down to misery after death, as it has dragged you to misery here in this world, my poor, poor Hetty. It is sin that brings dread, and darkness, and despair: there is light and blessedness for us as soon as we cast it off: God enters our souls then, and teaches us, and brings us strength and peace.”
Remorse which positively excludes the love of God is infernal, it is like that of the lost. Repentance which does not regret the love of God, even though as yet it is without it, is good and desirable, but imperfect: it can never save us until it attains to love, and is mingled with it. So that, as the great Apostle said, even if he gave his body to be burned, and all his goods to the poor, and had not charity, it would all be of no avail; we, too, may say with truth that, however great our penitence may be, even though it make our eyes overflow with tears of sorrow, and our hearts to break with remorse, still if we have not the holy love of God it will serve us nothing as regards eternal life.1 [Note: St. Francis De Sales, Theotimus, bk. ii. ch. 19.]
3. This repentance is “not to be repented of”; it contains no sting of regret. Bitter indeed may be the tears that flow when first the discovery is made by the heart of its own vileness; overwhelming, perhaps, may be the shame and grief; like rankling arrows may be those convictions of sin in the contrite heart; yet, in looking back, not one pang is regretted, for they were the birth throes of the soul’s conversion. Though we sow in tears, yet, if we reap in joy, those tears will never be regretted. Even in the very process of this sorrow, apart from its ultimate result, there is that which causes it not to be regretted. That sorrow softens the heart and relieves it. We know that there is such a thing as a hard stunning grief, when not a tear is shed and the heart seems turned to stone. We know what instant relief it is when aught so touches that grief-bound spirit as to unseal its fountain, and unlock its rigidity. The passion of sorrow that ensues is positive luxury as compared with its former hard grief. So there is a sweet unburdening of the soul in the sorrow of repentance. We all remember how as children the heart became lightened, when, after some fault committed, and perhaps long-concealed or unowned, we at last told it all out to a loving parent’s ear, though scarce for sobbing could we tell it. Even so, when the contrite sinner falls upon his Saviour’s breast, in wailing but yet in confiding acknowledgment of his sin, does he experience the blessedness of that sorrow which is unto repentance, in its unburdening, softening, melting power.
Sin, repentance, and pardon are like to the three vernal months of the year, March, April, and May. Sin comes in like March, blustering, stormy, and full of bold violence. Repentance succeeds like April, showering, weeping, and full of tears. Pardon follows like May, springing, singing, full of joys and flowers. Our eyes must be full of April, with the sorrow of repentance; and then our hearts shall be full of May, with the true joy of forgiveness.1 [Note: Thomas Adams.]
It is as when of old God would have the earth at its fairest for the coming of him who was to have dominion over it all: and “there went up a mist and watered the earth”—hung it all in tears. The leaves were heavy and dripping, the flowers were sodden, the drenched grass was matted together. Then arose the sun, and out of tears came radiant beauty, for the ruddy light shot through it all and glistened in every drop, and hung the trees with diamonds, and sowed the grass with orient pearl, and flashed on every side with emerald and ruby, and a jewel was lapped in every flower. So is born the joy of the Lord. The Sun of Righteousness arises and shines upon the tears of our penitence and grief. Or yet again: it is as when in some overheated day the black clouds of thunder creep up the sky and blot out the sun; not a breath stirs the languid leaves, nor any sound breaks the awe and hush of all things. Then comes the lightning flash. And then the crashing thunder, “like a whole sea overhead,” and the floods that run in rivulets on every side. And afterwards the new life, filling everything with cool, delicious freshness. The sun glistens in the rain-drops and tips the edges of the departing clouds with gold, and flings a rainbow right across the heavens; and on every side bursts forth a ringing gladness, like the prophet’s song of old: “O Lord, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me.”1 [Note: M. G. Pearse, Parables and Pictures, 229.]
Who may tell how often sorrow
Cometh at the close of day;
Sorrow for the sinful record
Borne by passing time away;
Sorrow for good resolutions
Broken in the toil of life;
For the Christian’s weapons tarnished,
Blunted in the daily strife;
For the weakly heart’s backsliding
In the journey to its bourne;
For the dulness of the spirit
Dwelling in its carnal urn.
Yet this sorrow bringeth comfort,
When it bends the contrite knee
In an act of heartfelt worship,
In a deep humility.
Then it is the blest forerunner
Of a grace that steals always,
With refreshing to the spirit,
Changing sighs to songs of praise.
Sorrow such as this be ever
Welcome to this heart of mine,
Through such tears a hopeful rainbow
O’er my future path doth shine;
Minister of heaven’s giving,
Messenger to clear the way,
Till the love of God descending
Teaches all my soul to pray.
And, in answer, such a measure
Of His strength divine comes down,
That my spirit more than ever
Strives to win and wear the crown.
Godly sorrow, oft come hither
On the stilly wings of eve,
Such a holy joy attends thee
That it is a bliss to grieve.2 [Note: R. W. Buckley.]
Arnot (W.), Roots and Fruits of the Christian Life, 300.
Blake (W.), Good News from Heaven, 44.
Blunt (J. J.), Plain Sermons, i. 142.
Brooks (P.), Christ the Life and Light, 1.
Candlish (R. S.), Scripture Characters, 143.
Cottam (S. E.), New Sermons for a New Century, 41.
Hodge (C.), Princeton Sermons, 125.
Maclaren (A.), A Year’s Ministry, ii. 113.
Owen (J. W.), Some Australian Sermons, 193.
Paget (F.), The Spirit of Discipline, 51.
Pierson (A. T.), Foundation Truths, 3.
Robertson (F. W.), Expository Lectures on the Corinthians, 372.
Spurgeon (C. H.), My Sermon Notes: Romans to Revelation, 245.
Stevens (H.), Sermon Outlines, 114.
Symonds (A. R.), Sermons, 44.
Christian World Pulpit, lxi. 152 (G. Body).
Churchman’s Pulpit, Lenten Season, v. 49 (J. Jackson), 226 (F. W Robertson).
National Preacher, xxxviii. 111 (J. G. Vose).