2 Corinthians 7:8-11
For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same letter has made you sorry…
The apostle's summary of his preaching is "Repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ." These two ought never to be separated. Yet the two are separated, and the reproach that the Christian doctrine of salvation through faith is immoral derives most of its force from forgetting that repentance is as real a condition of salvation as faith. Consider —
I. THE TRUE AND THE FALSE SORROW FOR SIN.
1. Now we have no more right to ask for an impossible uniformity of religious experience than we have to expect that all voices shall be pitched in one key, or all plants flower in the same month, or after the same fashion. Life produces resemblance with differences; it is machinery that makes facsimiles. Yet, whilst not asking that a man all diseased with the leprosy of sin, and a little child "innocent of the great transgression," shall have the same experience; Scripture and the nature of the case assert that there are certain elements which, in varying proportions, will be found in all true Christian experience, and of these an indispensable one is "godly sorrow."
2. Notice the broad distinction between the right and the wrong kind of sorrow for sin. "Sorrow according to God" is sorrow which has reference to God; the "sorrow of the world" is devoid of that reference. One puts sin by His side, sees its blackness relieved against the "fierce light" of the Great White Throne, and the other does not. There are plenty who, when reaping the bitter fruits of sin, are sorry enough. A man that is lying in the hospital, a wreck, is often enough sorry that he did not live differently. The fraudulent bankrupt that has lost his reputation, as he hangs about the streets, slouching in his rags, is sorry enough that he did not keep the straight road. Again, men are often sorry for their conduct without thinking of it as sin against God. Crime means the transgression of man's law, wrong the transgression of conscience's law, sin the transgression of God's law. Some of us would perhaps have to say — "I have done crime." We are all of us quite ready to say, — "I have done wrong"; but there are some of us that hesitate to say, "I have done sin." But if there be a God, then we have personal relations to Him and His law; and when we break His law it is more than crime, more than wrong — it is sin. It is when you lift the shutter off conscience, and let the light of God rush in that you have the wholesome sorrow that worketh repentance unto salvation. I believe that a very large amount of the superficiality and easy-goingness of the Christianity of to-day comes just from this, that so many who call themselves Christians have never once got a glimpse of themselves as they really are. I remember once peering over the edge of the crater of Vesuvius, and looking down into the pit all swirling with sulphurous fumes. Have you ever looked into your hearts in that fashion and seen the wreathing smoke and the flashing fire there? If you have, you will cleave to that Christ who is your sole deliverance from sin.
3. But there is no prescription about depth or amount or length of time during which this sorrow shall be felt. If you have as much sorrow as leads you to penitence and trust you have enough. It is not your sorrow that is going to wash away your sin, it is Christ's blood. The one question is, "Has my sorrow led me to cast myself on Christ?"
II. "GODLY SORROW WORKETH REPENTANCE."
1. What is repentance? Many of you would answer "sorrow for sin," but clearly this text draws a distinction between the two. The "repentance" of the Bible is, as the word distinctly expresses, a change of purpose in regard to the sin for which a man mourns. Let me remind you of one or two passages which may show that the right notion of the word, "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance," i.e., without change of purpose on His part. Again, "The Lord repented of the evil which He had said He would do unto them, and He did it not," i.e. clearly He changed His purpose. So repentance is not idle tears nor the twitchings of a vain regret, but the resolute turning away of the sinful heart from its sins. It is "repentance toward God," the turning from sin to the Father.
2. This change of purpose and breaking off from sin is produced by sorrow for sin; and that the production of this repentance is the main characteristic difference between the godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world. A man may have his paroxysms of regret, but the question is: Does it make any difference in his attitude? Is he standing, after the tempest of sorrow has swept over him, with his face in the same direction as before; or has it whirled him clean round? My brother! when your conscience pricks, is the word of command "Right about face!" or is it, "As you were"?
3. The means of evoking true repentance is the contemplation of the Cross. Dread of punishment may pulverise the heart, but not change it; and each fragment 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.
III. SALVATION IS THE ISSUE OF REPENTANCE.
1. What is the connection between repentance and salvation?
(1) You cannot get the salvation of God unless you shake off your sin. "Let the wicked forsake his way," etc. It is a clear contradiction in terms, and an absolute impossibility in fact, that God should deliver a man from sin whilst he is holding to it.
(2) But you do not get salvation for your repentance. It is no case of barter, it is no case of salvation by works, that work being repentance. "Could my tears for ever flow," etc.
2. What is the connection between repentance and faith?
(1) There can be no true repentance without trust in Christ. Repentance without faith would be but like the pains of those poor Hindoo devotees that will go all the way from Cape Comorin to the shrine of Juggernaut, and measure every foot of the road with the length of their own bodies in the dust. Men will do anything, and willingly make any sacrifice rather than open their eyes to see this — that repentance, clasped hand in hand with faith, leads the guiltiest soul into the forgiving presence of the crucified Christ, from whom peace flows into the darkest heart.
(2) On the other hand, faith without repentance in so far as it is possible produces a superficial Christianity which vaguely trusts to Christ without knowing exactly why it needs Him; which practises a religion which is neither a joy nor a security. "These are they which heard the word, and anon with joy received it." Having no deep consciousness of sin, "they have no root in themselves, and in tinge of temptation they fall away." If there is to be a life-transforming sin and devil-conquering faith, it must be a faith rooted deep in sorrow for sin. Conclusion: If, by God's grace, my poor words have touched your consciences, do not trifle with the budding conviction! Do not let it all pass in idle sorrow. If you do, you will be the worse for it, and come nearer to that condition which the sorrow of the world worketh, the awful death of the soul. Do not wince from the knife before the roots of the cancer are cut out. The pain is merciful. Better the wound than the malignant growth. Yield yourselves to the Spirit that would convince you of sin, and listen to the voice that calls to you to forsake your unrighteous ways and thoughts. But do not trust to any tears, any resolves, any reformation. Trust only to the Lord that died for you, whose death for you, whose life in you, will be deliverance from your sin. Then you will have a salvation which "is not to be repented of."
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent: for I perceive that the same epistle hath made you sorry, though it were but for a season.