Repentance and Godly Sorrow
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 87)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
People are often very regretful about having done something wrong, particularly when they have to pay the consequences. However, just wishing they did things differently, and regretting the results, is far from truly repenting for what they had done.
While sitting in jail, a convicted felon might be filled with regrets. He might wish he had planned and executed his crime better to avoid getting caught. He might wish he had been able to get away from the police better when they came after him. He might regret hiring the lawyer that got him convicted. When a person is sorry for his sins in this way, he is not repentant. It is nothing more than self-centered regret.
There is a godly kind of sorrow for sin.
Real repentance is not just concern about the personal consequences of mistakes we make. It centers upon the offense to God which our sins produce. 2 Corinthians 7:10 makes a contrast between these two kinds of sorrow. It says, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
The world sorrows over the inconveniences caused by sin. This is a selfish kind of grief. The fact that it offends God only enters the picture in how God might punish the guilty party. When discipline in a society or home is only a matter of rewards and punishments, it trains people to weigh what they do against the cost of the personal consequences. So crime is avoided simply because it “doesn’t pay.” They figure that if they get caught and have to go to jail, it might not be worth taking the chance.
That is the attitude that makes people drive over the speed limit when the police are not around. They easily lie if they think they can get away with it, and if it helps them out in some way. They steal from their taxes, steal from God’s tithe, or shoplift things in stores. It’s why children often risk the consequences to break the rues their parents make.
There is a far greater reason to avoid doing what’s wrong.
Moral judgments should not be based upon what benefit we get from them. They should be measured by how they either please or offend God. We are not here for our own advancement. We advance so that God will be honored.
I often think of Eric Liddell, the Scottish olympic runner whose story was told in the movie Chariots of Fire. He clearly let his fans, friends, and opponents know that he was not running for his own glory. He ran for God, for his honor. In one of the race scenes another runner hands Liddell a scrap of paper. There’s a Bible verse on it: 1 Samuel 2:30, “…he who honors Me, I will honor…” Eric holds the paper tightly in his fist during the whole race.
This is why we should work hard and do our best when we scrub our floors, write our lessons or sermons, do our homework, produce our products, serve our customers, heal the sick, defend the accused, or whatever we’re expected to do here in this life. We owe all we are and have to God and to him alone. Our abilities to work, create, save, and produce are only ours because of God’s mercy.
When we do things that displease God, it ought to trouble us deeply. If we are redeemed in Christ, it ought to drive us to repentance.
Westminster Shorter Catechism question 87 asks, “What is repentance unto life?”
Answer: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”
True repentance is not natural in our fallen souls.
It is an evangelical grace.
Repentance is an ability implanted by God’s gracious work of regeneration. Along with faith in the redeeming work of Christ, and the beginning of real spiritual growth, God makes us able to see our sins for what they are, and to repent of them.
Contrary to popular thinking, the Bible does not teach that first we need to repent, then God steps in because of that to forgive us for our sins. The fallen heart cannot truly repent anymore than he can have a true faith. However, once spiritual life is implanted, repentance cannot be avoided. It is not our deep feelings about sin that save us. It is the work of Christ, and the faith in that work that begins when we are regenerated by his operation upon our hearts. The same grace that makes us believe also makes us truly remorseful to God for our sins.
This is the consistent teaching of the Apostle Paul.
Romans 2:4, “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?”
A. A. Hodge explains, “Every Christian duty is therefore a grace; for without him we can do nothing ( John 15:5). And equally every Christian grace is a duty because the grace is given to us to exercise, and it finds its true results and expression only in the duty.”
This means that if we truly repent of our sins, God is to be thanked for our repenting. However, we should not just wait around for God to overcome our moods and stubbornness. It is our duty to admit the depth of our sins and come broken before God in repentant confession. Only when we come can we discover that God has so graciously moved our hearts to do so.
It is important to know what a true biblical repentance is.
There are two main Hebrew words in the Old Testament that are translated as “repentance”, and two Greek ones in the New Testament.
The Hebrew word, nakham (נחם), is the key to understanding the word. Dr. Girdlestone explains that it means “to draw a deep breath.” It was used to express a deep feeling that makes us sigh. Sometimes it is that deep feeling we experience when we mourn or grieve in sorrow. Other times it is used for the deep compassion we have in our hearts when we see someone else suffering. The word came to be used for comforting or consoling someone. One of the things that can move us to deep sorrow is when we consider our sins against God.
The Bible sometimes uses this word in reference to what God does. Often it is translated that God repented of something he did or purposed. However, that is not a good translation of the word in that case. God never regrets what he has done or planned. He never makes inferior decisions he later finds out should have been different. He is, however, moved with deep compassion to console his people, and to grieve over their rebellion. It is better to use wording such as, “God grieved,” “God sighed,” or “God was moved with sorrow and compassion” concerning sinful actions that harm his people spiritually.
The other biblical words often translated as “repentance” mean the change in a person caused by the deep emotions of sorrow or compassion.
Latin gave us the word “remorse” which literally means “to bite again.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines remorse as “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs”
When God changes a heart in regeneration
repentance is one of its fruits:
There is an intellectual change. The Holy Spirit uses God’s word to convince us about what is true. He points out through Scripture and by our renewed conscience what is right and wrong. He shows us where we would crossed the moral line. The unsaved only see rules with penalties. The believer sees moral principles that show us what honors God, and what offends him. That is a huge difference. Instead of figuring out which things we can get away with, our deep love and gratitude to God compels us to live for his glory, rather than to indulge our own pleasures.
King David showed this more mature understanding of sin. The Holy Spirit, by the prophet Nathan, opened his heart to understand his offense against God. We see his reaction in Psalm 51.
Psalm 51:3-4, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight — That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge.”
There is also an emotional change produced. When the nature of our sin is revealed, a believer’s heart responds with profound grief and spiritual pain to know how much he has offended his God.
When we repent as we should, God generates in us a relief and joy because of his assurance of forgiveness and comfort. This is what David meant in the same Psalm after he repented.
Psalm 51:14, “Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, The God of my salvation, And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.”
There is also a volitional change. When a redeemed soul is informed about sin and convicted by the Spirit, his desires change. He wants his fellowship with the Lord to be restored. He is not just worried about his own punishments. He knows he deserves them. He also begins to desire to make choices that honor his Creator. David shows this transformation in other verses in Psalm 51.
Psalm 51:11-12, “Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.”
Psalm 51:15, “O Lord, open my lips, And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.”
It is sad that many evangelical churches
teach a watered down repentance.
Some define “repentance” as if it was only a change of mind about sin, but that it does not require a change in behavior. God does not divide us up as if we were disconnected puzzle pieces. When he redeems us, he does not just inform us mentally. He renews our dead souls. We begin to live spiritually for the first time.
A. A. Hodge says that repentance unto life is, “a change of mind including evidently a change of thought, feeling and purpose corresponding to our new character as children of God.”
If our regeneration is genuine it implants life into our lost souls. That produces a change we called conversion. That will include a true repentance, a deep sorrow over our sins, an awareness of how horrible it is to violate what pleases our loving and gracious God, and a change that makes us determine to stop sinning and strive to do what is right. The regenerate child of God is able to apprehend both the horrors of sin as an offense against God, and the wonders of grace which show the mercy of redemption through the Messiah.
He understands that sin is just plain wrong, not just because it produces unpleasant results in his life and circumstances, but because God is offended.
He sees the fleeting pleasures of sin as having no appeal to him at all when considered in the light of God’s honor (Hebrews 11:25). He understands his own inner moral weakness and wants it changed. He wants to be free from sin and its bondage, rather than just from its personal consequences. He sees his condemnation as just, and only removed by the merits of Jesus Christ in his place.
When we realize that the foolish and wrong things we do cannot possibly make us truly happy or help our loved ones, when we see that God alone is the one offended most by our every sin, we can only then understand the Apostle Paul’s cry in Romans 7:24-25, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! …”
Repentance is not just about confessing and avoiding what is bad. It is about wanting to learn to be good. It is a strong desire to please God at every opportunity, in everything we do.
In Chariots of Fire Eric Liddell says, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
The godly attitudes that grow in the heart of the repentant fill them with great pleasure to know that they do things God loves them to do. This is why we should love to live morally, to say no to sin, to turn away from temptation, to refuse to indulge our desires in wrong ways, and to give our all to Christ’s service and Kingdom.
The lost want to be free from the consequences of sin, but they care little about their offense to God. The believer will endure justly deserved consequences if he must. His joy is in the promise that he can be progressing out of his sinful ways, and becoming more and more free from offending the God he loves so dearly. He is driven to live every hour of his life for Christ — to please God.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)