Godly Sorrow Worketh Repentance

By Mike Willis

Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. 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 Cor. 7:9-11).

One of the most neglected subjects in preaching is repentance. Understanding the true nature of repentance helps us clean sin out of our own lives and recognize when a brother Has truly repented so that we might forgive him. Because repentance is not understood, some have been baptized without being saved. They have gone into the water a dry sinner and come out a wet sinner. No transformation occurred in their lives which might be compared to a new birth, the laying aside of the man of sin, that one might walk in newness of life. Because this subject is sometimes neglected, we want to study repentance.

The Sorrow of the World

Our text speaks of a “sorrow of the world” which worketh death. There are a number of sorrows in this world – loneliness, depression, physical suffering, etc. However, the “sorrow of this world” which is under discussion in this chapter is related to sin. This world’s sorrow for sin is tied to physical and temporal consequences of sin. The sorrow of the world which is related to sin (1) has no shame or grief for the cause of the sorrow, (b) has no reformation of life tied to it (it will continue to sin so long as it can protect itself for sin’s consequences), and (c) can never eradicate sin.

There are several Bible examples of men who showed only a sorrow of this world for their sins. Cain was only concerned that men would kill him for having murdered his brother Abel, so he said, “My sin is greater than I can bear” (Gen. 4:13). King Saul was only concerned for what his subjects thought of him when he disobeyed God by not killing Agag and not destroying all of the cattle. When Samuel rebuked him, he said, “I have sinned, yet honor me now before the elders of the people” (1 Sam. 15:30). Judas regretted his betrayal of Jesus but went and hung himself rather than truly repenting of his sin.

The sorrow of the world is worthless when fighting against sin. Although our heart feels compassion for those who are suffering the ill effects of their own sin, we need to distinguish true repentance from the sorrow of this world. The drunk who is crying in his beer is only suffering the sorrow of this world; he has not repented.

Godly Sorrow Works Repentance

True repentance stems from godly sorrow. Sin is related to God. James Hastings wrote,

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 (Great Texts of the Bible: 2 Corinthians 246-247).

True repentance stems from the recognition that God has a law which has been disobeyed. The sinner recognizes that his sin has been an affrontal to God. When man sins, he has doubled up his little fist in the face of God and refused to obey his will. For true repentance to occur, there must be the recognition that the sinner has sinned against God and caused him grief (Eph. 4:30; Gen. 6:6).

We understand how sin grieves the heart of our fellow man against whom we have sinned. An unfaithful husband causes untold grief to his wife, children, parents, and brethren. He also grieves God (Eph. 4:30). Even as this sinner apologizes to and asks the forgiveness of his loved ones against whom he has sinned, he also must seek the forgiveness of God against whom he has sinned.

This godly sorrow for sin works repentance. Repentance is not merely sorrow for sin or the determination to make restitution. It is that change of mind which leads to a reformation of life. Jesus illustrated repentance in the parable of the two sons:

A certain man had two sons: and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you (Matt. 21:29-32).

True repentance occurred when that rebellious son who said “I will not” changed his mind and went to do his father’s will.

The Effects of True Repentance

True repentance changes one’s conduct. In the specific case which Paul had in mind when he wrote 2 Corinthians 7:10, a man had taken his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5:1-11). The church, rather than withdrawing from the incestuous son, continued to receive him into their fellowship. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 5, instructing the church to withdraw from the sinful brother. The church obeyed his instructions and the man repented of his sins. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul instructed the church to receive back and forgive the penitent brother (2 Cor. 2:5-11). In the section before us, he explains the specific thing which the Corinthians did in repenting of the conduct toward the erring brother. The New International Version translates v. 7 as follows:

See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what affection, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in this matter.

Notice the steps which true repentance takes.

1. Carefulness. This is opposed to the previous indifference which had been manifested toward the sin. When men truly repent, the time for a careless attitude toward their sin is past.

2. Clearing of yourself. This is opposed to the previous conniving and hiding of sin. True repentance renounces its sin. There is no doubt about one’s attitude toward his past conduct; the penitent man wants to clear himself about the matter.

3. Indignation. The mind ceases to tolerate sin and begins to show righteous indignation toward it. The church at Corinth had previously tolerated sin, become puffed up about it, and showed no mourning (1 Cor. 5:1-2). When repentance occurs, one shows righteous indignation toward sin.

4. Fear. With true repentance there is fear of God’s divine wrath and fear that one might stumble into sin again.

5. Vehement desire. There is desire for restoration of peace with God, inner peace, and peace with one’s fellow man.

6. Zeal. With true repentance there is zeal in pursuing the right course, correcting wrongs done, and otherwise bringing oneself back into the way of righteousness.

7. Revenge. A penitent person recognizes that his sin has been an act of injustice; he therefore is anxious to see justice restored.

Truly penitent sinners are anxious and ready to clear themselves. Recognizing the traits of genuine repentance, we also see that true repentance has not occurred when:

1. One only confesses his sins because someone exposed them. Men sometimes have trouble knowing whether or not genuine repentance has occurred when fornicators and adulterers carry on their secret affairs for months without making any effort to repent. Then when they are exposed, they reluctantly make a public confession. Genuine repentance can occur in such cases, as it did with King David (2 Sam. 12). The obligation of love is to give the penitent brother the benefit of the doubt (1 Cor. 13:7).

2. One evades admitting his sin. Some are unwilling to use the words which the Bible uses to describe their conduct. They want to say that they have made a mistake, an error, used poor judgment, and other non-condemning or less self-indicting words, but they do not want to say, “I have stolen from my brother,” “I have committed adultery,” etc.

3. One lies about his sin and the people whom he has hurt to make his case look less self -incriminating.

4. One makes general acknowledgment of sin. Sometimes brethren who are unwilling to say what they did that was wrong make a general confession that says, “I have not been as faithful as I should have been.” This leaves brethren unclear about what they have repented of. Only one’s conduct after his confession can answer the questions which brethren have about his repentance. Penitent sinners could make things easier on themselves by openly confessing their sins!

There are several Bible examples of true and genuine repentance. The prodigal son left no question about his repentance. He forsook his riotous living, wasting his money on harlots, and returned to his father’s house saying, “I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (Lk. 15:19). The Jews on Pentecost who recognized their sin cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:38) The Ethiopian eunuch, recognizing that he was lost, asked, “What doth hinder me to be baptized?” (Acts 1:36)


Robert S. Arnold wrote these words in the song “Did You Repent, Fully Repent?”:

Did you repent, fully repent of your past sins, friend,

When you confessed his name on high?

Did you believe, fully believe on his great name then,

Or was a doubt, treacherous doubt, lingering night?

Did you obey all of the way what he commanded,

Things in his word we’re told to do?

Did you confess, fully confess Jesus the Savior,

Did you repent, did you believe all the way through?

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 8, pp. 226, 246-247
April 16, 1992