For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of but the sorrow of the world worketh death (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The Difference Makes the Difference
In his second letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul begins chapter seven by launching into a lengthy discussion about how to “perfect holiness” by “cleansing ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1)”. Inevitably, this dovetailed into a unique perspective on sorrow and repentance. Paul describes (and we’ll look closer at it in a moment) the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow. It’s a vitally important distinction because one leads to spiritual death and the other to salvation. The difference makes the difference. We’ve all got to get this one right.
Called to Stop Sinning
The Bible teaches us that the Church is a called-out assembly. God has called us out of sin, and God has called us into holiness. We are supposed to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). That standard is very high because God is supremely holy. You might be thinking that it is impossible to be sinless. And in a way, you’re right. However, the New Testament reminds us repeatedly that we are to be without sin (holiness). In fact, 1 John 2:1 pauses and says, “Stop sinning. Just stop it!”
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not… (1 John 2:1).
If you take the Bible and boil it down to its essence, the central theme is God’s grand plan to get humanity from sinfulness to sinlessness.
Our Response to Sin is the Key
It’s easy to start sinning, but it’s hard to stop. That’s basically been humanity’s problem from the beginning. For most people, defining what is and isn’t sin is problematic. Sin is so pervasive and normal that we don’t feel horrified by it. And if we don’t feel horrified by sin, we don’t think of it as all that bad. My struggles with sin have taught me that sin’s grip is hard to break. If you’re human, you have your own stories and struggles with sin too. I also know how enticing sin can be from the countless hours I’ve spent trying to help others find deliverance from every sin you can imagine. I’ve noticed through the years that the real issue isn’t that we have sinned (because we have) or if we will sin (because we will).
The question that matters is, what will we do with our sin? How we respond to sin usually helps us stop or causes us to keep on sinning. Godly sorrow over sin produces genuine repentance, which allows the Holy Spirit to step in and empower us. Worldly sorrow leads to lackadaisical repentance, which only perpetuates sin in our lives. Worldly sorrow produces a self-sustaining cycle of sinfulness. Before highlighting the vital differences between godly and worldly sorrow, we must clear up an apparent contradiction in the Bible.
Does God Cleanse Us, or Do We Cleanse Ourselves?
Sin is a stain on our lives. God desires to present to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing (Ephesians 5:27). God is deadly serious about His church being holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27). That’s why we’re all in such desperate need of the blood of Jesus. Only His blood cleanses all the stains of sin. But do we cleanse ourselves, or does Jesus cleanse us? The passages below might be a little confusing at first glance.
…let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1).
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
To answer this question, we need to identify the context of these two verses. In the previous chapter, Paul clarifies his target audience, “for ye are the temple of the living God (2 Corinthians 6:16).” Clearly, Paul is talking about repentance to people who have already obeyed the Gospel and are in the Church. He’s referring to the ongoing process of sanctification (holiness), which requires continued repentance. We must skip forward to pinpoint John’s intended audience:
These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God (1 John 5:13).
So, it’s clear that John is writing about the initial salvation experience, when we first take ownership of our sinfulness, leading to repentance and obeying the Gospel. At that moment, God covers us with His blood.
God’s Role & Our Responsibility
At salvation, something compelling happens; when we repent, our sins are forgiven (1 John 1:9); at baptism, our sins are remitted (Acts 2:38); at the infilling of the Holy Ghost, we are empowered (Acts 1:8). God did the cleansing work at Calvary, and we stepped into that cleansing flow via obedience. However, regarding our continued walk with God, 2 Corinthians 7:1 clarifies that we must “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” In other words, God does the initial work. Then He expects us to put some effort into the process from that moment forward. To be sure, His Spirit comes inside to help lead, guide, comfort, correct, convict, strengthen, and encourage us along the way. But the infilling of the Spirit doesn’t remove our free will. After salvation, God expects us to exercise an often-overlooked fruit of the Spirit – self-control (Galatians 5:23).
Sometimes I hear church folks say, “if only God would give me the power over this ____ sin.” But God has already given us His Spirit. He’s already cleansed us. So now we must cleanse ourselves daily. If we’re not careful, we’ll use God as an excuse for our continued sin. God cleanses us first, and then we are responsible for walking in that cleansing. That’s the process of sanctification or holiness. In answer to the original question: Does God cleanse us, or do we cleanse ourselves? The answer is that God does the major cleanse first, and then we step in and do minor cleansing as we continue our walk with the Lord.
A Simple Illustration
A simple, albeit imperfect illustration, may help clarify this concept. Roughly once a month, I take our family SUV to a full-service carwash. They detail our vehicle inside and out. I do that because they have the equipment, chemicals, and expertise that allow them to do a thorough cleaning that I’m not capable of doing. It’s almost like having a new vehicle when they get done. I didn’t do the cleansing. They did. But if I eat a bagel in the car and crumbs fall everywhere, I must clean that mess myself. Otherwise, I’ve wasted my time and money on that professional cleaning job. They cleaned it first in ways I can’t do alone. But I still have a responsibility to keep it clean. In much the same way, that’s how walking in holiness works.
Problems in the Corinthian Church
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he is very forthright with them. The church was super messed up with big-time problems and significant sin issues. For example, a young man was having an affair with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1). Even more revolting, rather than the church being grieved. They laughed about the situation like it was a joke (1 Corinthians 5:2). Paul was so angry that he demanded that if the guy refused to repent, they should turn him over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh (1 Corinthians 5:5). That leaven of malice and wickedness would destroy the whole church if they didn’t deal with it correctly (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). All this background is essential because we can now understand 2 Corinthians 7:8-11 and answer the question: What’s the difference between godly and worldly sorrow?
I’m Not Sorry That I Made You Repent
8 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. 9 Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance… (2 Corinthians 7:8-9).
In the above verses, Paul was trying to let the church know that his first letter (1 Corinthians), with its strong rebuke, was not intended to make them feel sorry but was a call to repentance.
…for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. 10 For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of… (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).
In other words, when you have godly sorrow. It leads to godly repentance, and you don’t have to confess the same sin repeatedly.
…but the sorrow of the world worketh death. 11 For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things, ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
In his unique way, Paul carefully contrasts these two types of sorrow. They both lead to outward repentance, but only one is genuine. The result of godly sorrow is a change in behavior and attitude. But worldly sorrow brings death. It certainly brings spiritual death, but in the immediate, it might mean the death of a marriage, a friendship, victory, blessings, spiritual power, or family relationships. Tragically, in extreme cases, it could culminate in an untimely physical death because of sin.
For All That Is in the World
Anything derived from the world is compromised, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world (1 John 2:16).” Worldly sorrow is derived from either the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life. So, for example, a person might feel sorrow for their sin because of the pain it produces. They feel that pain in their flesh, and that pain can be intense. It’s real! Emotional and physical pain caused by sin can become unbearable at times. And many people assume the remorse they feel because of their agony is genuine repentance. But if that remorse is a temporary emotion birthed from pain, it’s not godly sorrow.
A second kind of worldly sorrow results from the lust of the eyes. People can be sorry because they see how sin has impacted their life; lost loved ones, broken relationships, wasted moments, embarrassments, and failures. Their kingdom might be crumbling before their eyes like a slow-motion nightmare. Consequences that used to seem so unlikely and distant come crashing into focus. They might think, “I’m going to lose my wife, kids, or job.” But ultimately, their focus is on their kingdom. Many people feel this kind of worldly sorrow and confuse it for genuine repentance. But true repentance is not self-centered. It’s God-centered.
Thirdly, the pride of life produces another type of worldly sorrow. People may feel sorry because they are embarrassed that people can see their sins. They see their reputation going down the drain, their influence waning, or they feel disliked. Perhaps they want to be viewed in a more positive light. But the critical issue is their name. Again, the sorrow is selfishly motivated. Therefore, the resulting repentance is only skin deep.
Me, Myself & I
Worldly sorrow always brings the focus on me. It’s all about my feelings. My pain. My reputation. My happiness. But godly sorrow focuses on the fact that my sin has grieved God and others. Ephesians 4:30 warns us not to “grieve” the Holy Spirit. Godly sorrow is acutely aware that my sin has grieved the Holy Spirit. Godly sorrow isn’t just sorry because of sin’s consequences on my kingdom. It’s more concerned with God’s Kingdom. Godly sorrow isn’t worried about the reproach that I brought on my name but with the reproach that I brought on God’s name. As the prophet Nathan said to David after his horrific sin with Bathsheba, “You have brought great occasion to the enemies of the lord to blaspheme his name (2 Samuel 12:14).” Nathan was more concerned with how David’s sin would impact the world’s understanding of God than he was with king David’s reputation.
Seven Characteristics of Godly Sorrow
Paul doesn’t leave us with a nebulous definition of godly sorrow. 2 Corinthians 7:11 describes what godly repentance looks like in action. He lists seven things that accompany godly sorrow. Numbers are significant in the Bible, and the number seven represents completion and perfection. Therefore, it could be said that these seven things signify complete and perfect repentance.
Carelessness leads to sinfulness. A careful person is full of care, caution, and intentionality. Godly sorrow produces carefulness where casualness once reigned supreme. Decisions are weighed out and made thoughtfully. Every action is measured according to the Word of God. Godly sorrow refuses to blame sin on ignorance, incompetence, recklessness, or inattention to detail.
2. Clearing of Yourself
Godly sorrow doesn’t make excuses. It doesn’t blame other people or circumstances for sin. There’s no hiding, covering, manipulating, shifting, or maneuvering of responsibility. Worldly sorrow keeps things hidden and harbors secret sins and motives behind closed doors. Godly sorrow seeks to clear the air and clean the conscience. It thrives on transparency and always advocates for the truth to be displayed.
Godly sorrow recoils at the thought of past sins. Old lifestyles aren’t viewed as the “good old days.” It doesn’t laugh at sin or find it entertaining. Carnal things that used to seem euphoric become repulsive. The thought of sin and evil produces anger, indignation, and disgust. Godly sorrow views sin as a vile thing to be detested. It doesn’t despise sinners, but it does hate sin. In much the same way as you would hate cancer while loving a cancer patient.
I’m always nervous when someone repents of a particular sin and says, “I know I’ll never do that again.” I’d much rather someone say, “I’m going to take every precaution possible to make sure I never fall into that sin again because I’m afraid of going back to that terrible thing.” You will take godly precautions when you have a healthy fear of a possibility. Furthermore, a little fear of the Lord is a good thing.
5. Vehement Desire
Godly sorrow is fueled by a fervent desire to serve God and avoid sin. Vehement means to show strong feelings. It’s forceful, passionate, urgent, and intense. It isn’t mellow, mild, or casual. Godly sorrow recognizes the seriousness of sin and its desperate dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
The Greek word for zeal is spoudē, found twelve times in the New Testament. The primary meaning of zeal is “haste” or “diligence.” Meaning diligence in the sense of “earnest zeal.” It’s always used in the context of living out godly lives.[i] The idea is that godliness takes ongoing work and tenacious effort.
When godly sorrow is in play, everything in your being wishes you could return and fix the things sin has taken from you. So, in a certain sense, you are looking for revenge against the enemy of your soul. That’s why brand-new saints often get so on fire for God. They are avenging what the enemy stole from them when they were under the bondage of sin. Godly sorrow never looks longingly back toward Egyptian taskmasters.
It’s not hard to receive the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in other tongues. But if you’ve been around an Apostolic church for a while, you’ve probably noticed that some people seek the Holy Ghost for weeks or even months without being filled. The apostle Peter didn’t say, “repent and be baptized, and you might receive the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38).” He said, “you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38).” My experience has taught me that many people struggling to receive the Spirit are actually struggling with repentance. They might be sorrowful and going through the motions of repentance, but their sorrow is worldly and does not lead to life. Gently and lovingly, helping them to decipher the difference between godly and worldly sorrow can lead them to the breakthrough they need.
[i] Renn, Stephen D., ed. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005.