The following sermon was preached by Dr. William Young at East Greenwich, RI on November 29th, 1992
May the Lord be pleased to grant his indispensable aid as we would endeavor to consider the seventh chapter of Second Corinthians, verse number 10. “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of, but the sorrow of the world worketh death.”
Evangelical repentance issues in salvation, and there is no salvation without it. Now we have endeavored to speak of repentance, that repentance that is a saving grace wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and the Word of God. After speaking of these aspects of repentance unto life, the 76th answer of our Larger Catechism goes on to read, “…whereby, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, and upon the apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, he so grieves for and hates his sins, as that he turns from them all to God, purposing and endeavoring constantly to walk with him in all the ways of new obedience.”
Now, our text speaks of the nature of repentance unto life, speaks of it as godly sorrow, or as the fruit of godly sorrow as opposed to the sorrow of the world that works death. The apostle Paul refers here to the reception which his first letter to the Corinthians received among them. You may remember the case of the sinner in the Corinthian church who had committed such sin as would be disapproved of even by the heathen, but who had not been disciplined by that congregation. Paul’s strong words directed towards them in this matter led to godly sorrow on their part and to their performing the duties that they had been obliged to perform that they had been negligent of. The apostle Paul was not happy that he caused sorrow among these people, but the regret that he may have felt on that account was compensated for when he was told by Titus that the fruit of that sorrow of the Corinthians was true repentance, it was repentance unto life. And having made these remarks with respect to the response of the Corinthian church to Paul’s epistle, he goes on to speak in our text in a more general way with respect to that godly sorrow that works repentance unto salvation on the one hand, and the sorrow of the world that worketh death on the other.
Let us first say a few words about repentance as being or coming out of a sight and a sense of sin. Repentance supposes conviction of sin. Now we know that there is a conviction that even the unregenerate might have when the law of God sets forth what is morally right and what is morally wrong. This is when a sinner, upon hearing the declarations of the commandments of God, its promises, and the blessings that are assured through obedience and the curses that are pronounced against disobedience to God’s commandments, may become terrified and may come under a deep conviction of the fact that he has committed sin and is in a dangerous condition. He may as a result amend his ways and proceed to perform duties commanded and to avoid sins forbidden, at least in an outward fashion. Now, this is not repentance unto life. This is not even a gracious conviction of sin that the true child of God experiences when the Holy Spirit opens the eyes to see something not only of the holy law of God, but also something of the remedy that the Lord has provided in the gospel. But there are two elements that may be found in a true conviction: the sight of sin, and the sense of sin. It’s the law of God that opens the eyes to the sight of sin. That’s what we’re taught by the apostle Paul in the epistle to the Romans when he states in Romans 3:20b, “By the law is the knowledge of sin,” and when he states again in Romans 7 that he would not have known sin if it were not for the commandment. That’s the sight of sin.
But there’s something more to conviction than just seeing or knowing what sin is. There is the sense of sin. That distinction was one that was known to the poet Joseph Hart (1712-1768) when he writes that “to see sin smarts but slightly, to own with lip confession is easier still, but oh to feel cuts deep beyond expression.” Is this not the case with the servants of the Lord? Is this not the case with Isaiah (Isaiah 6:3,5) when in the temple he beheld something of the majesty of God and perceived the heavenly spirits declaring, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.” And then the prophet was convinced, not only convinced by way of understanding, but convinced by way of feeling, of the sinfulness of his sin, he cried out, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Think also of the case of Job, when Job heard the voice from the whirlwind and was humbled before the majesty of the holy God. Job then declared at Job 42:6, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” And of the apostle Paul in the seventh chapter of Romans, not an unconverted man, not even an ordinary Christian, you might say, but one who had been set aside by the appointment of God for a great work after extreme sin and opposition to the truth, who cried out, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” And is this not what the prophet Ezekiel teaches us in the 18th chapter of his prophecy, in verses 28, 30 and 32, “Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” Then again, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.” And, “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live.”
Now we may note that this saving sight and sense is not the common conviction that an unregenerate man may indeed have from the application of the law of God. But this is saving conviction leading to repentance unto life. This conviction is distinguished from that which is only the sorrow of this world by the fact that there’s an apprehension not only of the danger of sin, but of the filthiness and of the odiousness of it. An unconverted man might indeed have a very keen sense of the danger of sin. Some of us know of cases of people who have been at death’s very door who have been convinced that they have been walking in an evil way and have turned temporarily from the evil upon the occasion of such a conviction. The unconverted person can have a conviction of that sort and mend his ways and walk in an openly upright fashion as a consequence, but that’s not true repentance unto life. Repentance unto life is something that arises not simply from a sense of the danger that one has incurred, but it arises from a sense of the odiousness of sin, from a sense of the filthiness of one’s state. And to see this, to see the exceeding sinfulness of sin is something more than just an outward turning as a consequence of a sense of danger. There can be a sense of danger that one might have that is aroused by some experience when one is providentially delivered from an impending threat of physical disaster, and this person may be brought to sense the danger that there is in incurring the wrath of the holy God. A person may be brought to fear the danger of the final judgment of God in consigning one’s soul to everlasting hell, and on this account a person might turn from walking in an outwardly wicked and outrageous fashion. But this is not saving repentance. It is not repentance unto life. It’s not just a sense of the danger of one’s sin, but it’s a sense of what our Larger Catechism calls, “the filthiness and the odiousness of sin.”
There’s something else that serves as a motive to true repentance unto life. This motive to true repentance is not found in the law of God, but is found in the Gospel. It is the apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ. We might ask, what is it that gives rise to an evangelical repentance as distinct from a merely legal repentance? What is it that brings the soul to see the exceeding sinfulness of sin? We answer, it is the fact of the way that the Lord Jesus Christ himself has borne the penalty of sin and of transgression, in the way that the wrath of God was poured out against his only begotten son, in the way that the Saviour has sweat the bloody sweat in the garden, and in the way that he cried out upon the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) This is the spring of a godly sorrow which gives rise to that repentance that is not to be repented of. As Calhoun has well put it, “It is from the eye of a saving faith that there pours forth the tears of evangelical repentance.”
It’s the apprehension of God’s mercy and of his goodness as it is revealed in the Gospel that is an indispensable motive for repentance unto salvation. We don’t deserve that salvation, but God is pleased to give repentance. As Augustus Toplady has put it in those ever memorable words, “Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law’s demands, Could my tears forever flow, Could my zeal no languor know, All for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone.” But while repentance cannot merit the favor of God, at the same time, it is a part, an essential part, of that salvation which God freely gives. It is a part of that salvation that cannot be separated from saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, even as we find in the words of the prophecy of Zechariah (Zech 12:10), which we mentioned last time, when the spirit of God is poured out, the spirit of grace and supplication, and the poor sinner looks upon Him whom he has pierced, and then he mourns looking on Him. That’s looking from saving faith when the command is given to look along with the promise; look and live. And from that looking there is the mourning, the mourning for the one who was wounded and pierced, as one mourns for one’s first-born.
In the second place we may observe that evangelical repentance flows not only from the apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, as well as from the law, but it consists in grief for and hatred of one’s own sins. This grief and hatred of one’s sins is spoken of as repentance, not to be repented of. That’s the way that I take this in our text. I realize it’s possible to understand it as being salvation that is not to be repented of and spoken of in the text, but it strikes me that it is more suitable to understand it terms of repentance unto salvation being a repentance that is not to be repented of.
There are two different words, incidentally, in the original that are found here. The repentance wrought by godly sorrow is the word metanoia, the word that might quite literally be taken as meaning a change of mind. This grief for one’s sin and this hatred for one’s sin is indeed a change of mind. The unconverted sinner, when not under any sort of conviction, may proceed without any grief whatsoever for the sin that he is addicted to. Far from hating it, he loves it. That’s the way it is with the unconverted. They are slaves, willing slaves to their sin and even when there is a legal conviction, there is still no spiritual grief. There’s no spiritual hatred of their sin as being sin against God. The kind of repentance and grief that’s spoken of here, is what we find in the fifty-first Psalm, when the prophet David could say, “My sin is ever before me. “ When he recognized that it was sin against God, even the sins of adultery and of murder, he said, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight.” There’s true evangelical repentance for one’s sin.
In the third place, repentance and faith are given together by the Spirit of God, but the exercise of evangelical repentance supposes saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This faith and this repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is indeed the work of the Holy Spirit to convince of sin and of misery. The Spirit of God convinces in a saving way the Lord’s people of the sin of unbelief. How deeply rooted in our hearts is that particular sin! And it’s not only the unconverted man who does not believe the truth of the Gospel record, it’s not only that man, but the converted man is also prone to distrust, and he is prone to disregard the precious promises of God which are yea and Amen in Christ Jesus. It’s the work of the Divine Spirit to convince the soul of this unbelief which is so deeply rooted in our corrupt hearts. Grief and hatred of sin is necessary in true repentance, and in the hatred of sin, there is the abhorring of one’s self.
We have a lot of cheap talk nowadays sometimes put under the guise, or the disguise, of the gospel about self-esteem. But it’s only self-love that’s being inculcated by some who would masquerade as professing the truth of the gospel or even the Reformed faith. But rather, the picture that’s given in Holy Scripture is a very different one of true repentance unto life. It’s a matter not of loving one’s self, but it’s a matter of self-abhorrence, as we’ve seen in the cases of Job, and of Isaiah, and of the apostle Paul. There’s a true repentance that is rooted in a godly sorrow, sorrow according to God, the text literally says, and this is a sorrow very different from the sorrow of the world that works death. The hypocrite may feel grief for his sin; so did Cain, so did Judas. But the kind of grief felt by Cain and by Judas is nothing more than the sorrow of the world. The sorrow of the world may bring on physical death, as it did in the case of Judas, but if grace does not prevent it, the sorrow of this world will lead to eternal death.
Godly sorrow is very different indeed. Not only is its end salvation, but it is sorrow for sin, as sin. Sin is utterly opposed to the holy nature of God and to his law. This is what David felt in the fifty-first and in the thirty-second psalms. He provides the example of a godly sorrow for sin. He confesses not only the sinfulness of his outward deeds, gross crimes against the sixth and seventh commandments, but David also confesses the sinfulness of his very nature when he declares that he was conceived in sin and that it was in iniquity that his mother brought him forth. He had not a disparaging word with respect to the character of his godly mother, but David is here making a confession that from the very first being of his own existence he was a sinner in the eyes of a holy God. He was involved in the guilt and in the corruption of sin from the beginning, and that his later adult misconduct was simply an expression of that sin which was so deeply rooted within his soul.
Let us see what a difference there is between David’s confession of the sinfulness of his nature, and of his gross crimes and the sorrow of this world that worketh death. Now the Apostle Paul wrote on, you may remember, in the eleventh verse of II Corinthians 7 to speak of the fear and the hatred there is of sin that is involved in gracious evangelical repentance for sin when he writes, “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, (an indignation against sin), yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge!” And these characteristics of repentance unto life are approved of by the apostle when he says, “In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” In a similar way the Psalmist states that he hates every false way in Psalm 119:128.
In the fourth place, the effect of this grief and hatred is the turning away from sin, and a turning from sin to God. This is true conversion. It’s sometimes the case that there is an identification of repentance and of conversion. Repentance is turning. And again, there is a kind of turning from sin on the part of the unconverted that leads not to spiritual life, but leads the way to spiritual death. That is, when a person turns from one sin in order to commit another one. But that kind of a turning from sin is not a turning to God. Here is the great difference between the kind of turning that the unconverted might make and that which the true child of God makes in his turning away from sin to God. This turning away from sin is turning away from sin, as sin! And in turning away from sin as sin, one turns away from all sin. One doesn’t just give up one sin, especially when one sees that it has unpleasant consequences that flow from it. But one hates sin as such and therefore turns away from every sin. Now I’m not saying, to be sure, that a child of God is without all sin in this present life. But there is a fundamental movement of the heart in the renewed man. He has a love for all of the commandments of God. And as there is the love of all the commandments of God, there is the hatred of everything that goes contrary to the commandments of the Lord. The case of the true child of God is the case of Ephraim as we find it in Jeremiah, the thirty-first chapter, verses 18-19:
“I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus: Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned: for thou art the LORD my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.”
The smiting upon the thigh is a figure from physical action of the outlook of the soul, when the soul humiliates itself in true repentance because of the sin of the heart and of the life.
The life of the true convert upon earth is indeed a continual turning away from sin and to God. At his first conversion the sinner says with the prodigal son, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned.” When graciously received by the Father, the sinner who has been converted continues to be turned unto the Lord. He continues to turn away from all sin. And so we teach that evangelical repentance is not just an event that takes place at one’s first conversion, but is something which continues throughout the whole of the life of the Christian. In support of this we can apply Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple where we find in I Kings 8:47ff,
“Yet if they shall bethink themselves in the land whither they were carried captives, and repent, and make supplication unto thee in the land of them that carried them captives, saying, we have sinned, and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness; And so return unto thee with all their heart, and with all their soul, in the land of their enemies, which led them away captive, and pray unto thee toward their land, which thou gavest unto their fathers, the city which thou hast chosen, and the house which I have built for thy name.”
Notice the words at the beginning of verse 48, “And so return unto thee with all their heart and with all their soul.” Compare this with what we have in Ezekiel, the 14th chapter at the 6th verse, “Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” See the word “all” there; not just from some of your abominations, but turn from all of your abominations. Here we have the Scripture emphasizing the fact that this turning away from sin is indeed a continual turning away from all sin and a turning unto the Lord God. Repentance from sin as sin is repentance from every sin.
Finally, true repentance is completed in our purposing and endeavoring to walk constantly with God in all the ways of new obedience. And so the psalmist in Psalm 119:59 declares that he thought of all his former ways with grief and with sorrow, with hatred of sin, and he turned unto the Lord. We may think of Zacharias and Elizabeth as they are described in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke, the 6th verse in the words, “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.”
Repentance unto life is not to be thought of as a transient emotion. It is not to be thought of even as being a single act of the will. But it’s a purpose that is fixed in the mind as a continual disposition to walk with God. Many people are very confused about the way they talk about emotions. It’s one thing when one feels a certain momentary sense of danger that leads to fear. You see a car coming at you and you jump out of the way, and you have a feeling of fear. But that’s only for a moment. That’s not something that stays with you. But on the other hand, when it comes to something like true love, true love is not an emotion. What the wicked, corrupt, depraved world calls love may sometimes be an emotion, as a feeling for a moment, and then maybe for a little bit more than a moment, but then it passes away, it changes. The love that the Bible talks about is a fixed and settled disposition. The love of God to his elect is a love that doesn’t change. It’s a love that abides eternally, fixed unchangeably in the divine mind. And the love that God commands to be directed to him and to one’s neighbor in the first and great commandment, and in the second, like unto it; that love is not a trivial emotion of the moment. It’s not even a single volition at a single moment. But it’s a fixed, constant disposition or inclination that’s deeply rooted within the soul. This is true of love, it’s also true of faith and it’s true of repentance unto life. It is this continual disposition to walk with God.
This love will express itself indeed in various acts. One very important act in which true repentance expresses itself is in making restitution. We have this, do we not, in the case of the publican, Zacchaeus, as he declared in Luke 19:8, “Zacchaeus stood , and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” And this wasn’t just an expression of good intention on Zacchaeus’ part, but this was approved by the Lord who said unto him in the ninth verse, “This day is salvation come to this house forasmuch as he is also a son of Abraham.”
A hearty confession of sin as that of David in Psalm 32:5, and as the book of Proverbs 28:13 speaks of, and as we know of from I John 1:9, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. This is not mere lip confession, but is a sincere confession of sin which is often put in the Scripture for repentance unto life. This is approved of repentance combined with a purpose and an endeavor to walk constantly with the Lord God.
I’ll say just a word by way of application. There are many applications that can be made, and much of what has been said in the exposition of the subject is itself application. But particular application is in order, especially to the unconverted. Repentance is necessary to pardon of sin. Our Lord Jesus has declared in Luke 13, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Indeed, Sir Baxter put it, “Turn or burn!” Repentance does not merit salvation, as we said, but there’s no salvation without it. Oh, unbeliever, do not be satisfied with merely legal repentance. The sorrow of this world, as the text states, works death. Don’t think that alone will bring you to everlasting life. But rather, come to Christ, come to him who has been exalted to the Father’s right hand, that he might give repentance to Israel and the remission of sins.
May He be pleased to grant His blessing and enable us to call upon His name.