For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV)
A spiritual battle that is being waged today in human hearts is the matter of repentance and what we have to repent of. As studies in psychology and sociology have focused on the influences we have on one another, especially in family relationships, they have minimized personal responsibility and guilt. We sin, they seem to say, not because there is something wrong with us, but because there is something wrong with everyone else.
This undercuts the need for personal repentance and the entire idea of our own personal moral failings. Like all false teachings, it has a little truth to stand upon – that we have been influenced by others – but it takes this fact too far, and uses it to suggest that we are mere victims, and not perpetrators ourselves. And when our own personal moral responsibility is removed from the equation then the solutions will emphasize merely outward changes and not the inward change of the heart that the Gospel speaks of. We will inevitably blame others for things that are our fault, and that is the real spiritual danger of this matter.
Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts comic strip, compiled a group of cartoons about adolescence entitled “Teenager is Not a Disease.” One of those showed a father and son in a heated discussion, with the son apparently saying to his dad that his problems were really caused by his parents. The father replied, “Then it is not the parents’ fault, but the grandparents’,” which exactly where this line of thinking leads.
This type of thinking is not new, of course, and it was offered as a defence by Adam when God accused him for eating of the forbidden fruit: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). This was akin to Adam saying, “It is not my fault, but yours, O God, for if you had not made the woman I would not have sinned.”
The Bible comes back always to the point of personal responsibility. Yes, others have influenced me, and God will deal with them in His way and in His time, but my problem is my sin, my choices that I have made. In the times of Ezekiel there was the saying, “The fathers have eaten soul grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2). We do pay for the sins of previous generations, and it has always been the case. (See Exodus 20:5-6) But to that expression Ezekiel said: “The soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4).
The Spirit inspired Paul to write:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Cor. 10:13)
God has woven into this moral system in which we live an equity of human behavior, that though we have each been influenced by others, though we have each had to bear the sins of our parents and grandparents, and even of society around us, God has still placed each human being in a circumstance where he could choose to do right instead of wrong. The moral problem of us each is never the spec that is in our brother’s eye but the log that is in our own.
Godly sorrow is the conviction of our own personal sins that comes by the Holy Spirit’s voice in our hearts. He may speak softly at first, and louder as we mature, but He will point out our need of grace, our own moral failings, our sin. The response of our hearts at that moment should be like the publican in the temple, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” The Spirit shows us our sins so that we may be forgiven and set right, not so that we may carry over us this endless guilt and shame,
This is the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow that Paul was writing about – that godly sorrow, that is, sorrow produced by the conviction of the Spirit, leads us to life, to cleansing, to the assurance of forgiveness. Worldly sorrow simply leads us to depression, to a sense of our failure, but without any sense of the grace of God that forgives sin. The person who comes to God in repentance produced by the Spirit hears the voice of God saying, “You are guilty, but you can be forgiven and cleansed and changed.”
“Without regret” – these are the words that translators choose today to convey a single Greek word ametamelēton. It is the word “repent” with the letter “a” in front which negates the meaning of the word – such as a “theist” who believes in God and an “atheist” who does not. It literally means “not to repent of” and it means an action about which there can be no change of mind. When someone truly repents from his sin, under the conviction of the Spirit of God and the knowledge of the gospel, he will never regret that repentance. It resulted in cleansing and assurance and acceptance and forgiveness.
The idea of repentance of personal sin is an inextricable part of the gospel and the genius of Christianity. You cannot have Christianity without the concept of repentance and conversion of our hearts. God changes hearts, and if we take this out of the gospel we have no more gospel. So we may come to God at all times with a complete openness, ready and willing, even anxious for our sins to be pointed out that we may be cleansed and forgiven.
The gospel declares: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19).
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
Transformation is God’s work much more than our work. We are called to cooperate with God, but He is the One who must do it. When the Spirit gives us conviction about a certain matter, then we are to confess that to God and receive His cleansing, and then, by His Spirit, commit to sin no more on this matter. God is at work i our hearts to change us into the spiritual image of Christ Jesus. He is at work right now in your heart and in mine to do this. We just need to cooperate with Him – to daily surrender to Him, confessing our sins and receiving His cleansing and restoring grace.