Choices are fragile, necessary things. Tantalizing, agonizing little things. Brimming with endless possibilities. Accoutrement laced anticipations. Funneling into careless cessations. The question is asked, “Which way should we go?” The question echoes, “Does anyone know?” Arrogance answers, “Just enjoy the show.” Ignorance answers, “There’s no way to know!” Malevolence answers, “Don’t rock the boat!” Yet, choices are tenacious little things. Creeping through our minds even while we sleep. Twisting and tunneling deep in our souls. Every action straddled with reactions. Consequences lurk beneath distractions. They ask, “Is day any different than night?” I believe that shadows prove the sunshine. My friend, the sun still burns with fervent light. The night knows it has but a little time. And choices we make determine that time.
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.
White picket lines of peaceful persuasion
Cannot undo the cost of invasion
Endless fine lines of baser perversions
Weakened strains of moral conversions
Flawlessly wielding falsified searches
What will become of us all?
Cold, calculating meaningless data
Hiding underneath the smiling strata
Clinging to less fortunate ideas
Laughing, dragging, while dreaming of sions
Intricate veins coursing with curses
What will become of us all?
Meanwhile, one white robed throng preaches the Writ
Tenaciously keeping holy flames lit
Falling valiant, bleeding from vicious slits
Ten thousand swords critically slashing hits
Battered, beleaguered saints climb past ashen fritz
What will become of us all?
One bright light pierces the eastern sky
A triumphant shout falls from mountain highest
One brilliant white horse gracefully flies
The armies of Heaven closely aligned
Every blood-stained voice shouts toward the sight
What will become of us all?
God is nothing, they say Just imaginary games Yet morality, they claim Forgetting their context Ignoring histories flame Hanging by thin threads To ever-waning grace Blind to the inversion Holding conversions Creating diversions They know not their place Goodness without God Like moths to acrid flame Digging for diamond truths Yet never making gains Ignoring perversions Reality gone Almost without a trace Lost in oblivion No equilibrium Willful delirium From grace to disgrace Philosophy flipped aside Lost on the rising tide Grasping for hope inside But hope is not within It rides like winter wind From Heaven above Sometimes fire, sometimes rain Holy convocations Sacred invocations Life reawakened From death to God’s face
The Good Book
The Bible is still the best-selling book of all time. It’s estimated that roughly a billion copies have been sold. That’s probably not entirely accurate. And it doesn’t consider the millions of free electronic editions available to the masses. Ironically, the Bible is more accessible thanks to the internet than ever. Yet, biblical illiteracy increases with each passing decade. Regardless, millions of people have a Bible on a shelf or hidden away in some forgotten drawer. Others treasure their Bible like gold and read it with sacred reverence. Grab ten people off the street, and you’ll get ten opinions about the Bible. However, if it’s not the whole Word of God, then it cannot be a good book.
All or Nothing
C.S. Lewis famously said that Jesus Christ was either “Lord, liar or lunatic.” Similarly, the Bible makes claims about itself incompatible with the idea of being just a good book of wisdom. The Bible is either the Divinely inspired Word of God or the silly ramblings of misguided delusional men. It’s either entirely true or the longest-running, best-coordinated con job in recorded history. Essentially, the Bible is an all-or-nothing proposition. If it’s genuinely from God, half-hearted attention will never suffice. And if it’s not, it’s the worst form of manipulative evil. No viewpoints in-between those two options are logical or possible.
Jesus said in Luke 11:28, “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.” Regardless of race, denomination, or background, if you ask any Christian if they would like to have Divine blessings, they will answer, “yes.” And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find large portions of them hearing and obeying the entirety of God’s Word. Most Christians have their candy stick verses or their preconceived dogmas. Sadly, most Christians ignore, overlook, or gloss over large portions of Scripture that seem extreme or inconveniently counter-cultural. Sometimes, they miss so many vital doctrines that their salvation is jeopardized. Others might slip into Heaven, but they miss tremendous blessings that otherwise would have been poured into their lives. Complete obedience to God’s Word is the key to accessing Divine blessings. There is no shortcut or substitute.
What Does the Bible Have to Say for Itself?
As I mentioned earlier, the Bible is either entirely true or a complete lie. But it’s impossible to remain intellectually honest without acknowledging the miraculous continuity of the Bible. Don’t forget that the Bible was written over a period of nearly 2,000 years by forty authors writing from three continents, and it maintains perfect uniformity of message. All sixty-six books comprising the Bible are united in perfect harmony and point exclusively to Jesus Christ, the true Author. Unlike the famed futurist Nostradamus, the Bible’s fulfilled prophecies are precise and uncanny. Scripture’s flawless internal consistency defies natural explanation. But rather than talking about the Bible, let’s take a close look at what the Bible has to say for itself.
The Bible Lays Claim to Divine Origins
20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. 21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:20-21).
Biblical authors were consistent in claiming that their words were not theirs. Holy men of old viewed themselves as vessels filled by God. They emptied themselves of the words poured into them by the Holy Ghost. If the Bible is not God’s divinely inspired Word, it is a fraudulent document filled with dribble. Of course, I believe the evidence proves (including my life interactions with it) that the Bible is true. However, the claims Scripture makes about itself are so radical that they demand complete acceptance or total rejection. Anything in between complete acceptance or total rejection is an intellectual cop-out. Partial approval or shallow half-hearted nods of respect aren’t compatible with the very nature of the Bible. In our culture plagued with near psychosomatic commitment issues, the biblical insistence upon total adherence is difficult to digest. However, it is the essence and the reality of what the Holy Writ requires.
The Bible Lays Claim to Perfection
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple (Psalm 19:7).
It could help to rephrase this claim in more understandable terms. The Bible lays claim to moral perfection. If Scripture is the divine Word of God, and if it is true that God is supremely just, then anything prescribed in His book is perfectly righteous. God’s Word sets the standard of right and wrong, good or bad, and so on. Therefore, even if our human sensibility is offended or confused, it does not make God’s Word imperfect. Humanity is corrupted by sin and does not easily comprehend genuine justice. We don’t perceive evil as precisely as we should. Meaning we are reliant upon the Bible to reveal moral Truths to us. Without the authoritative Word of God, humanity is left to its own misguided inward moral compass. Our understanding of good and evil has been tampered with by sin and by the sins of our fathers. We hide God’s Word in our hearts (Psalm 119:11) to replace our broken compass with God’s flawless GPS.
The Bible Lays Claim to Sanctifying Truth
Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth (John 17:17).
Without falling off a theological cliff, sanctification can be described as the process of being made holy. So how can one become holy? By living according to God’s Truth. And that Truth is contained in the Bible. Obedience to God’s Word is the only path to holiness. Anything less falls short of sanctification. All other versions of morality, although containing measures of truth, are not the Truth. Therefore, they fail to make one morally pure in the eyes of the Lord. It’s prudent to remember that God’s holiness is His most biblically acclaimed attribute. Our call to be sanctified through the Word is no insignificant thing. It isn’t just theological jargon or intellectual banter. It is a God-given imperative to be taken seriously.
The Bible Lays Claim to Flawlessness
Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him (Proverbs 30:5).
The word “pure” in the above Scripture comes from the Hebrew word yastsib, which means “true.”[i] However, in the more profound sense of the word here, it means “certain” or “reliable.”[ii] The distinction is important because God’s words aren’t just true at the moment they’re given. They are eternally reliable. This alludes to the prophetic surety of God’s Word. And to Its literal reliability in the past, present, and future. The Bible is eternally true. Its Truth doesn’t morph, degrade, or rescind. So, when the Bible speaks of the past, we can trust that it is true regardless of what current science might say. When the Bible tells of the future, we can believe it shall be so without reservation. When so-called modern “facts” contradict Scripture, rest assured that Scripture will stand vindicated.
The Bible Lays Claim to Vitality
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).
Admittedly, despite the King James Version being the best English translation, it sometimes creates embarrassing moments for the modern reader. I can’t tell you how many years I took the word “quick” to mean that the Word of God is a fast-moving sword. And while it is true that the Word can and does often move quickly in a person’s life, “quick” is an Old English word for “alive.” The Holy Bible is living. As we interact with the Word, the Spirit of God moves in us and upon us. The Word doesn’t change but progressively reveals things to us as we interact. That’s why you can read the same verse a thousand times, and one day, you comprehend something that previously seemed mundane. As we humbly submit ourselves to the Word, it changes us from the inside out.
The Bible Lays Claim to Salvific Exclusivity
13 But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. 14 But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; 15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Timothy 3:13-17).
The Bible is crystal clear in the claim that it holds the exclusive plan of salvation for humankind. No other book, creed, faith, or culture has access to eternal salvation with God in Heaven. Universalism is the deceiver currently working to deceive the very elect. It might be tempting to buy the lie that many paths lead to God. For some, that sounds tolerant and exceedingly loving. However, it is not possible to believe the Bible and hold to universalism at the same time.
Furthermore, for those who like to deny the relevance of the Old Testament in the New Testament era: When Paul declares that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” the New Testament was not yet completed or in circulation among the Church. The apostle was referring to the Old Testament. Indeed, the theological relevance of the Old Testament was affirmed by the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. All of whom referred back to the Old Testament in their preaching, teaching, and correspondence.
The Bible Lays Claim to Unbridled Power
Wherein I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds; but the word of God is not bound (2 Timothy 2:9).
Undoubtedly the apostle Paul was a mighty man of God. He walked in power and authority. Yet, he was still just a man. He suffered unending trials and tribulations. Paul was aware that his multiple incarcerations might cause some to doubt the power of God’s Word. He quickly reminded fearful believers that while we might be bound, the Word of God is never bound. God’s Word bristles with unbridled power even in the darkest of times. It’s working even when we can’t see it. It’s moving even when we can’t feel it. There is no thwarting or diminishing the Word of the Lord. A particular comfort comes when we understand that our weaknesses and sufferings cannot bind the work of the Word.
[i] “יציב,” Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary of the New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance paragraph 3620.
[ii] “י,” The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament 1613.
Heaven came down without a sound Into a lost world needing found Majestic angels gathered round Shepherds bowed low onto the ground Even as wise men sought the crown Emmanuel in a manger A single ray of light shown down The tyrant trembling at the news Assembled swords to slaughter Jews Hues of red innocent blood oozed The baby king is dead he mused Yet Christ lived on our sins to take Emmanuel in a manger A single ray of light shown down Heaven came down without a sound The miracle growing in a stable God in the flesh came to save us A lamb slain from the beginning Glory to God in the highest Emmanuel in a manger A single ray of light shown down
They twist and turn in the lamplights glow Whether friend or foe we do not know Tomorrow's ghosts above and below They are tellers of yesterday's truths The woven tales are not of their making The chains they clutch hellishly shaking With fingers pointed and backs aching They are tellers of yesterday's truths Consequences near or far removed Only delayed by time unreproved Their only intent is life improved They are tellers of yesterday's truths Can I deter my own convictions Interfere with mystic magicians Paving way for faulty suspicians For the tellers of yesterday's truths Holding onto hope like slippery pearls My tenderized heartache twists and twirls Fading memories chasing unkept trails From the tellers of yesterday's truths This transformation isn't complete Little changes building faith so sweet Ground thumping with irregular beats For the tellers of yesterday's truths May tomorrow's ghosts see helpless grace Arrogance gone like a broken vase Reckless demons falling out of place For the tellers of yesterday's truths
Those that run with swifter feet. Know not the grace of falling leaves. Nor the magic of treasures deep. For they move too fast and do not see. Those they love and things they need. They make their lists and miss the trees. The mystics mourn for living peace. Yet moments pass, and no one sees. Deeper wells of hidden gems. Forgetting depths of secret hymns. Humming unheard invocations. They won’t recall, and no one listens. Those that run with swifter feet. Might well find grace in slowing pace. For slow and steady wins the race. Avoiding dungeons, maintaining grace.
I’ll take you to the gates of Hell I’ll show you what’s there It’s a horrific, sadistic, gaudy affair With twisted metals and steep swirling stairs I’ll take you to the throne of Death I’ll show you the way It sits atop the fork of two great lakes One called disunion, the other disgrace I’ll take you to the bowels of Hades I’ll show you who’s there The liars, the lied-to, ordinary faces With haunted red eyes and bent bloody feet I’ll take you to the edge of Sorrow I’ll show you the pain The broken, intrepid, intricate traces Longing to find relief yet complacent I’ll take you to the verge of Salvation I’ll show you the plan The death, the water, the rush of language Choice determines the end destination
The cultural tattoo fad shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, tattoos are becoming more popular each year. I’m pushing up against forty, which means I remember when tattoos were rare in law-abiding circles. Most Christians were united in their stance against tattoos. It certainly wasn’t a controversial subject or a topic of hot debate among professing Christians. I don’t claim to understand exactly when, why, or how the shift towards accepting tats began. I have a specific memory of seeing a reasonably well-known “prophet” on YouTube with tattoo sleeves coiling down his arms and ringing up his neck and onto parts of his face. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was still naïve enough at the time to be shocked.
Since then, a slew of “name brand” preachers have given cheeky pro-tat arguments on social media. Typically, their statements are flippant, funny, theologically thin, and arrogant. What they lack in character, they make up for in charisma, making them popular and convincing to many people. So, with the ever-increasing popularity of tattoos and all the theological misinformation floating around, I felt it was time to weigh in with why I (and many others) remain firmly against tats. However, I want to be clear for those who already have tattoos – that sin and all other sins can be placed under the blood of Jesus. And, while I’m all for conviction, this article is not intended to instigate condemnation against the forgiven. That said, the following are seven biblical reasons why tattoos violate God’s standards of holiness for men and women, and then I’ll answer a few common questions relating to tattoos.
God’s Clear Command in Leviticus 19:28
Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:28).
Never slash (cut) your body to mourn the dead, and never get a tattoo. I am the Lord [God’s Word Translation] (Leviticus 19:28).
I consider tattoos to be a watershed issue of holiness. And by that, I mean it’s challenging to find a holiness standard more clearly articulated than “…never get a tattoo. I am the Lord.” We don’t have any Scriptures against meth or cocaine, yet we understand the principles of God’s Word to be in opposition to illicit drugs. But here, we have a clear and straightforward command directly from the Lord, and still, people find a way to wriggle around it. I’ve found that if someone can read this command and still not care about tattoos, there is very little else they will take seriously regarding holiness of lifestyle. If you can ignore one Scripture, you can easily ignore others.
Perhaps it would help to examine why God gave this command. First, “Both cutting and tattooing the body were done by the heathen.” And secondly, “Tattooing was probably practiced in ancient Egypt… Any voluntary disfigurement of the person was in itself an outrage upon God’s workmanship and might well form the subject of a law.” We are God’s workmanship (Ephesians 2:10) and significantly altering His design is an affront to His artistry. The Holman Old Testament Commentary clarifies the principles of holiness outlined in Leviticus 19:28 even further, “They were not to disfigure their bodies in any manner or adorn their bodies with tattoos.” So, here we see that any bodily disfigurement and vanity of adornment are connected to this holiness standard. The IVP Old Testament Commentary agrees, “The Israelite law may prohibit this practice since it involves a self-imposed alteration of God’s creation, unlike circumcision, which is commanded by God.”
Usually, pro-tat preachers give the feeble excuse that the Old Testament moratorium against tattoos is exclusively about getting a specific kind of tattoo. For example, they might say something like, “As long as you don’t get a tattoo of a false god, you’re fine.” While it is true that pagans often used tattoos to express allegiance to a particular false god, it’s far from the only reason pagans tattooed themselves. If that’s the only reason God forbids tattoos, He could and would have made that clear. Also, using that logic, God should have said something like, “If you do get a tattoo, make sure it shows allegiance to Me.” God’s previous and often repeated commands from Exodus 20:3-5 already forbids anything associated with idolatry or false gods:
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God…
I think God covered it thoroughly in the above Scriptures. No Hebrew in their right mind would read that and think, “Ah, but surely a Baal tat would be ok.” No. Leviticus 19:28 means something more profound than that. This leads us to the second and more misleading claim people typically use to justify tattoos. Because the context of the first portion of Leviticus 19:28 deals with mourning the dead, pro-tat folks might say, “Tattoos are fine; just don’t get a tattoo to mourn dead friends or family members.” The King James Version does make this exegetical error easy to make. However, even the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (hardly a shining bastion of conservative theology) states, “Unlike the first part of the verse, tattoos are not associated with mourning rites.”  Ironically, scores of Christians tattoo the names of dead friends and family members on their bodies in mourning and remembrance. Which further illustrates the sad pervasiveness of biblical ignorance or blatant disregard for biblical authority over modern lifestyles.
To review a few reasons God forbids tattoos, “Holiness requires Israel not to act like the pagans in any areas of life.” In other words, we are to be inwardly and outwardly separate, distinct, and different from the world’s people. Furthermore, “Leviticus 19:28 forbids the marking of the flesh.” In the end, God doesn’t need a reason that makes sense to us. If God says don’t get a tattoo, the question should be settled regardless of our opinions. If God can’t tell a person how to live, then He is no God at all to that person. Tattoos violate several other holiness principles, which I will take a closer look at below. However, God’s clear command in Leviticus 19:28 is by far the only reason any Christian should need to abstain from tattoos.
Wisdom & Cultural Associations
In 2017 The Journal of Social Psychology released a research paper titled Tattoo or Taboo? Tattoo Stigma and Negative Attitudes Toward Tattooed Individuals. It’s long but fascinating, and I must resist the urge to highlight hundreds of quotes in the paper. I’ll try to use self-control and keep things concise and relevant to the point. This research confirms something I’ve long suspected to be true. Tattoos are socially problematic on several significant tiers. And even if God had no opinion on the matter, wisdom would dictate that Christians should stay away from tats.
The research found that “People view tattooed individuals as possessing a number of negative character attributes, including being less inhibited, less competent, having worse character, being less sociable, and being more sexually promiscuous.” This creates real problems for tattooed people in the workplace. The research states:
Interviews with tattooed persons revealed that many tattooed individuals believed that they could not find employment because their tattoos were visible, suspicions that hiring managers confirm. Indeed, most hiring managers in Timming’s study explicitly stated they would not hire a visibly tattooed candidate, both because it would mar the image of the company and because of their personal dislike of tattoos. Potential customers have also tended to perceive tattooed employees as less capable and as riskier, and less physically appealing.
Complicating things even more, tattooed people often discriminate against other tattooed people for a variety of reasons contained in the quote below:
Tattooed individuals may stigmatize other tattooed individuals if their tattoos are large or unconcealable, such as on the face, hands, or neck, or if their tattoos are seen as overly trendy and lacking authenticity. Thus, the stigmatization of tattooed individuals is not limited to the non-tattooed.
And while the roots of the negative stereotypes might be sexist, the reality is that women with tattoos are viewed in a very undesirable light. Here’s just one tiny blip of what the research found:
In Britain, tattooed women were judged as more promiscuous, heavier drinkers, and as less attractive, and in France, men expected that tattooed women would be more likely to have sex on a first date than non-tattooed women. Studies on American college student participants have also found that women with tattoos are perceived as less attractive, less caring, and less intelligent or less honest and religious, depending on the type of tattoo.
Men don’t escape that harsh judgment either. When the studies lump men into the equation, things are just as dire:
Differences have been found between tattooed and non-tattooed individuals in Big Five personality traits, measures of rebelliousness or needs for uniqueness or distinctive appearance, risk-taking behavior or attitudes, the prevalence of problem drinking, illegal drug use, and uninhibited sexual behavior, and education levels with tattooed individuals generally having less desirable traits, greater risk-taking behavior and rebelliousness, and more deviant behavior.
The debate rages on whether these stereotypes contain any truth. While it’s glaringly apparent that the researchers are biased in defense of tattoos and do their best to mitigate the damage of the findings, they are forced to acknowledge that some of the stereotypes may have a factual basis. For example, “Tattooed participants reported significantly higher quantities and frequencies of drinking behavior than non-tattooed participants.” The findings also indicated that tattooed individuals display a higher tendency to dominate others. Regardless, Christians should exercise wisdom and avoid these negative cultural associations, whether warranted or unwarranted. The workplace problems alone are reason enough for a wise individual to stay away from tats.
Modesty & Vanity
By their nature, tattoos violate the holiness principles of modesty and vanity. Both subjects are worth a long discussion. However, for this conversation, I’m going to assume we already agree that Scripture emphatically opposes vanity and requires modesty of dress and conduct. The entire purpose of a tattoo is to draw attention to a particular portion of the body. Often, tattoos are exhibited on areas of the body that should be covered for modesty’s sake. Furthermore, the desire and willingness to use the body as an attention-grabbing canvas violates the biblical imperatives of meekness, shamefacedness, and humility (Colossians 3:2, 1 Timothy 2:9, Philippians 2:3, James 4:6).
It amazes me that people have no problem covering their bodies with carcinogen-laced inks in a culture obsessed with finding things that cause cancer. I bought a guitar strap the other day, and the tag had a warning that said, “Some of these materials may cause cancer.” We’re worried about cloth guitar straps but not inking our skin! Many of the same people who ink their bodies are busy making their own “safe” soaps and worrying about the effects of pest control chemicals. There’s a disconcerting mental disconnect on display here.
Penn Medicine released an article called Think Before You Ink: Tattoo Health Risks which raises safety concerns that go largely unreported. Essentially, the ink in tattoos contains definite cancer-causing ingredients. But what I found most interesting was this concern:
In addition to the fear of carcinogens contained in the ink, individuals are also concerned about how these tattoos cover the body. A change in skin pigmentation is one of the earliest signs of skin cancer, particularly melanoma. When the body is “blacked out” with tattoo ink, individuals may not be able to notice these changes right away.
An article in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery says:
Tattoos can cause bacterial infections caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, which could lead to impetigo, erysipelas, and septicemia; Staphylococcus aureus can cause rare toxic shock syndrome; skin and soft tissue infections can be caused by community-acquired methicillin-resistant S. aureus (CA-MRSA); treponema pallidum can cause syphilis; and Mycobacterium leprae which causes leprosy.
Permanent Life Impact
Everyone knows someone these days stuck with an embarrassing tattoo of their ex’s name. Tattoo regret is common and creates a lot of anxiety, humiliation, and distress. That unicorn on a cloud might seem super silly as maturity sets in. That phrase that seemed so profound a few years ago might sound stupid now. Wisdom should inform us that permanently marking our bodies could lead to frustration and mortification later in life. No matter how sure you are now, you can’t be sure that you’ll be sure in the future.
You might say, “But they have tattoo removal procedures now.” Out of curiosity, I investigated that and found a lot of conflicting information. For one thing, it’s not a completely sure thing that every tattoo can be removed entirely. And even if you can remove one, it’s an awful process. Lauren Chan talks about it in a fascinating Glamour article, Tattoo Removal: 14 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Getting It. Lauren writes, “A complete tattoo removal takes a minimum of two and a half years.” By all accounts, the process hurts and costs thousands of dollars to remove a single tattoo. And if that isn’t discouraging enough, the process usually leaves permanent scarring and possibly discoloration. And the common side effects are terrible, according to Lauren Chan. In other words, it’s unrealistic to assume you can wipe away a tattoo later if you decide you don’t like it. I wish you could, but it just doesn’t work that way.
The Body Is God’s Temple, Not Ours
The Bible teaches that we have been “bought with a price,” therefore, we must “glorify God with our bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We are God’s temple because His Spirit dwells inside us (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Our bodies are meant to be the temple and a sacrifice. We are instructed to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God” Romans 12:1-2). I’m emphasizing this because I hear things like “it’s my body and my choice,” even in Christian circles. But the reality for a believer is that it’s God’s body, and He makes the choices. I don’t get to do anything I want to do with this body I’ve been given. I’ve given my life to Christ, and that includes my body. Tattoos defile our temple with rebellion and render our sacrifice unacceptable to God.
Associations with the Occult, Death & Paganism
Throughout recorded history, tattoos have been intricately associated with occultism, death, mysticism, and paganism. Modern Christians either don’t know this, don’t care, or both. Many Christians no longer believe in the supernatural. To them, demons, witchcraft, and all things associated with it are biblical metaphors for something else. Just like Harry Potter, it isn’t to be taken seriously. They aren’t worried about the dark implications and associations shrouding tattoos. While researching, I noticed a testimonial on a blog by a woman identified as EB. Her real-life experience brings insight into the issue of tattooing that I couldn’t possibly give. Here’s what she had to say:
Prior to becoming a believer, I worked as a tattoo artist and am covered in ink. I spent years in that industry and have more tattoos than you’d care to count. Let me start by saying that the world of tattooing is absolutely and utterly demonic in every conceivable way. While its cultural roots are in paganism, its present life source is pride. I’ve tattooed hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and, without exception, each one of them (including my own and including the “Christian” pieces) were conceived of and carried out for purposes of self-exaltation and boastful individualism.
Up to my conversion, you would never have found me in long sleeves. My tattoos were my identity; without them, I was just. “Normal.” There is nothing the world hates more than normalcy. Almost immediately upon coming to Christ, my long sleeve shirt collection began to grow, and, at the present time, the only short sleeve shirts I have are undershirts that I wear… well, under other shirts. The only thing positive I can say about my tattoos is that they are a shameful and embarrassing reminder of how deep a pit I was pulled from and that it was not by my will but His that I was saved.
From the historical perspective, The Tattoo History Source Book speaks to the twisted religious heritage of tattoos:
“The actual tattooing process, which involved complex ritual and taboos, could only be done by priests and was associated with beliefs which were secrets known only to members of the priestly caste… historically tattooing originated in connection with ancient rites of scarification and bloodletting which were associated with religious practices intended to put the human soul in harmony with supernatural forces and ensure continuity between this life and the next.”
According to Amy Krakow in her chronicle The Total Tattoo Book, “Tattooing has had well-defined roles: Marking a rite of passage at a stage of life, calling the spirits, proudly, defiantly or sneakily showing who you are via body art.”
Here’s another disturbing quote for your consideration:
“The reasons why puncturing the skin should be regarded with some degree of awe are not far to seek, for, in the first place, there is the drawing of blood, which to the savage world over is full of significance as a rejuvenating and immortalizing factor. There is, in addition to the opening of numerous inlets for evil to enter.”
If you think the spiritual aspect of tattooing is a thing of the past… think again. One quick Google search into tattoo insiders revealed the current tat trends include “astrology inspired ink, religious tribal art, spiritual tattoos, specifically mandala, hamza, and lotus designs that are deeply associated with healing, balance, growth, rebirth, and positive energies.” One popular tattooer described the hot new trend of abstract expression art “that allows us to free ourselves from the mental blocks placed around what we know to be right or wrong.” Honestly, the past and current tattoo connections with humanistic, hedonistic, and demonist practices are so prevalent that it would take a large book to document all of it. I’m convinced that overlooking these things would take willful blindness or intentional complacency.
The Divine Tattoo (Common Questions & Objections Answered)
Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me (Isaiah 49:16).
People often use this verse to argue that God has a cosmically divine tattoo. And so, the reasoning goes, if God can get a tattoo, I can too. But that kind of thinking is wrong on several levels. First, we don’t get to do everything God gets to do. For example, we aren’t allowed to seek revenge or vengeance. Yet, God said of Himself, “vengeance is mine” (Romans 12:19, Deuteronomy 32:35, Hebrews 10:30, Leviticus 19:18). Secondly, people citing this verse are assuming the word translated in the King James Version as “graven” literally means “tattoo.” However, the Hebrew word used here is “chaqaq,” which means “to cut in.” The illusion of something being “graven” on God’s palms is more closely connected to the symbolism of the divine engraving of the Ten Commandments into stone (Exodus 321:18). Or it might even be seen as a metaphor foreshadowing the nail-scarred hands of Jesus. But even if “graven” were meant to conjure up the image of tattoos on God’s palms, it still wouldn’t validate tattoos for us. Why? Because regardless of how you translate the verse, the imagery is a figurative illustration meant to drive a point home. God doesn’t have arms or hands, for that matter. Furthermore, God doesn’t need a string around his finger or a post-it note reminding Him to love us.
Jesus’ Cosmic Thigh Tattoo (Common Questions & Objections Answered)
And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, King of Kings, And Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16).
This objection is even less plausible than the last one. Not only would Jesus not have a tattoo because it is forbidden in God’s Word (Leviticus 28:19), but neither would He immodestly expose His thigh (Isaiah 47:2-3). It’s offensive when people twist Scripture to their agenda. It’s a ridiculous and untenable leap from the word “written” to “tattooed.” There isn’t one shred of evidence that Revelation 19:16 hints at a cosmic tattoo on Jesus’ thigh. Admittedly, the King James’ translation is a little clunky here, which might cause some to wonder if the name is written on Jesus’ vesture and leg. Interestingly, out of the fifty or so English translations I checked; the Contemporary English Version was the most accurate (the CEV is not a paraphrase), “On the part of the robe that covered his thigh was written, King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16).
The Forbidden Haircut (Common Questions & Objections Answered)
Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard (Leviticus 19:27).
One of the silliest and more childish arguments used to justify the Christian tattoo goes something like: “Hey man, do you get a haircut or trim your beard? God condemned getting a haircut or trimming your beard in the verse before forbidding the tattoo. Dude, the tattoo is the same as getting a haircut.” God wasn’t condemning haircuts or beard trims, but He was expressly forbidding hairstyles and beard styles that mimicked their pagan neighbors. The IVP Commentary offers the most thorough and compelling explanation of Leviticus 19:27 I’ve seen thus far:
The prohibition against trimming the “sides of your head” or the “edges of your beard” uses the same terminology as Leviticus 19:9-10, which deals with the harvesting of fields. In both cases an offering is involved—one to the poor and the other to God. The law’s placement here immediately after the prohibition against divination suggests that the restriction on cutting the hair is based on the Canaanite practice of making an offering of hair to propitiate the spirits of the dead (see Deuteronomy 14:1). Hammurabi‘s code penalizes false witnesses by having half the person’s hair cut off. The Middle Assyrian code allows a debt slave’s master to pull out his or her hair as punishment (see Nehemiah 13:25). Both laws suggest that shame is attached to the loss of hair. There is a Phoenician inscription from the ninth century B.C. reporting the dedication of shaven hair by an individual in fulfillment of a vow made to the goddess Astarte. In ancient thinking, hair (along with blood) was one of the main representatives of a person’s life essence. As such, it was often an ingredient in sympathetic magic. This is evident, for instance, in the practice of sending along a lock of a presumed prophet’s hair when his prophecies were sent to the king of Mari. The hair would be used in divination to determine whether the prophet’s message would be accepted as valid.
This is the New Testament (Common Questions & Objections Answered)
Many Christians confronted with Leviticus 19:28 are quick to point out that they aren’t bound by any of those pesky Old Testament laws. Of course, this is a theologically illiterate argument. Unfortunately, theological ignorance is the norm in modern Christianity. What did Jesus do when confronted by Lucifer’s temptations in the wilderness? He quoted moral commandments from the OId Testament (Matthew 4:1-11). While it’s true that the Old Testament’s ceremonial laws don’t bind New Testament Christians, we’re still bound to every moral law of God. For example, did you know that bestiality is only forbidden in the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:23, Leviticus 20:15-16)? Does that mean that God now, under the New Covenant, approves of bestiality? It’s also worth looking at Leviticus 19:29, which is the verse right after the tattoo verse:
Do not prostitute thy daughter, to cause her to be a whore; lest the land fall to whoredom, and the land become full of wickedness (Leviticus 19:29).
This is the only place in the entire Bible where God directly forbids someone to prostitute their daughter. Would that still be a sin, or is it just an outdated Old Testament rule? Many other moral laws are only forbidden in the Old Testament, such as the human sacrifice of children. Nowhere in the New Testament is this forbidden. It’s only the moral laws we don’t like that we write off as irrelevant and antiquated. The Matthew Henry Commentary sums up how Christians should view Leviticus 19 in general, “Some ceremonial precepts there are in this chapter, but most of them are moral. Most of these precepts are binding on us, for they are expositions of most of the ten commandments.”