The Joy in Repentance
2 Corinthians 7:2 – 16
The Joy in Repentance
It’s time for New Year’s Resolutions, isn’t it?!
You might have made one,
You may have already broken one!
Let’s face it, 5 days into the new year, the gyms are already less busy than they were half a week ago,
But it’s the thing we do, isn’t it?
My Instagram feed’s been filled with people resolving to do, more of this, or, mostly less of that.
Here are a few I came across:
“NY resolution: to become as fat as I was, the very first time I thought I was fat”
“My new years resolution is to become more assertive – if that’s OK with you guys”
My New Year’s resolution is to be more patient. I hope I accomplish this as fast as possible!
Or this one, “I don't believe in New Year's resolutions, because you can start a healthy habit and give up three days later any time of year.”
But over and over I came across resolutions all about the whole “no regrets”, approach to life.
So things like: “My New Year’s resolution – don’t regret anything. Ever.”
“New Year’s Resolution 2020: Don’t be sorry, just move forward.”
And like starting a healthy habit, then giving up 3 days later, this isn’t just limited to New Year’s resolutions, this is prevailing attitude of our society,
Whether it’s London rapper Dappy and his song “No Regrets” which hit number one on the charts,
Or articles in Forbes magazine about how to live a life with no regrets,
Even tattoo parlours want you to regret nothing!
Which, it seems to me, is a pretty big ask for a tattoo parlour!
And so whether we are Christian, or here tonight because we want to find out about Christian things, and how following Jesus helps us see ourselves and the world,
How should we think about regret and sorrow?
Are they valuable?
Or is being sorry for my behaviour just negative thinking that’s holding me back?
And here in 2 Corinthians 7 we read about things that are regretted, and thinks that are not.
Reconciliation matters (v 2 – 4)
The Apostle Paul’s relationship with Corinthian Christians hasn’t always been easy.
See how the section opens, in verse 2,
Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. 3 I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you.
Paul wants real reconciliation and relationship with the Corinthians.
He’s already asked them to open wide their hearts, chapter 6 verse 13, that is to be open with him, to
think of him as someone on their side, and not as someone who needs to be kept at a safe distance.
And Paul may be defending himself against particular accusations from some in the church in Corinth.
See his denials;
We have wronged no one,
we have corrupted no one,
we have exploited no one.
It may be that some are refusing to consider Paul a real apostle, because ministry of teaching God’s Word is boring and unimpressive compared to the flashy showmanship of the church leaders nicknamed the super apostles.
It seems that others don’t consider themselves in partnership with Paul because he took what they considered an unnecessarily severe line on issues of sexual morality, that is, he refused to tolerate it at all,
He insisted on disciplining those who persisted in that behaviour while still claiming to follow Jesus .
Paul “doesn’t play well with others” they think.
No doubt for some the issue is what he’s just written in chapter 6,
Have nothing to do with idolatry,
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.
That will be costing some in Corinth their business!
It will cost them relationally.
Certainly drawing those sorts of lines, even today, is seen as doing wrong isn’t it?
Pauls’ language for corrupted no one has the sense of doing the church harm, of ruining it.
And if this year, you take a stand on an issue of sexual morality,
If you call on people to turn away from idols and false gods, and turn to the true and living God, then this will be the allegation levelled against you.
I heard just this week of a pastor here in the UK, who was told by a church member in a church meeting, “you have ruined my church.”
His offence? Teaching the gospel of Jesus in a way that made it accessible for people outside the church.
Are you ready, to contend for the gospel of Jesus in the face of this kind of accusation?
That’s what we face with people who are opposed to the gospel, so reconciliation and relationship among those who really are God’s people really matter.
you have such a place in our hearts, Paul says, that we would live or die with you
Our Bibles have flipped Paul’s word order around to make it flow a bit better in English. He actually says, “to die with you and to live with you.”
But that order would have sounded strange to the Corinthians ears just like it does to ours.
He deliberately speaks of dying first, and then living, to capture something of the Christian experience of dying, and then being raised to life.
That’s a massive part of the hope that Christian people have.
It’s why the funeral of a Christian person is so vastly different to the funeral of a person who thinks that death is the end.
See, Paul’s not simply saying, “Oh, we like you so much that we’d die for you.” Though that’s true.
And Christian fellowship sometimes is expressed like that.
But he’s also saying more, something like, “both you and us, we will die, and yet we’ll live.
That is our shared destiny.”
And if that’s the experience of every Christian person, you can see why reconciliation and good relationships among Christian people are so important.
Your Christian brothers and sisters, in this church,
In other churches across London, and in other parts of the world, will, like you, die, and be raised to life with Christ for eternity,
Aren’t they then those to whom you should open your heart?,
Consider them partners in ministry?
Seek their good?
Not hold a grudge, or despise or belittle their ministry?
When your Christian brothers and sisters, here or elsewhere, are accused of doing wrong,
When their public stand over issues of sexual morality,
When their gentle but firm insistence that God’s pattern for life is always best, sees them accused of destroying the church, will you have a place for them in your heart?
Will you consider yourself, on their side?
The point is not that you have to be best friends with every other Christian, people will always have preferences that are not yours, and you’ll act in ways that don’t make any sense to them.
But the fact that we will spend eternity together, with Christ, means we don’t do what the Corinthians had done with Paul;, we don’t look down on people because of the weak state of their ministry, or their strange way of doing things.
We don’t let someone else take the flak for publicly taking a biblical stand, while we remain silent trying to avoid making eye contact.
Rather, as Paul says, verse 4, 4 I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds, he recognises that even though they had a painful shared past,
Nevertheless he sees the grace of God at work in them,
He can be completely open and honest with them, and that gives him great joy.
Godly sorrow leads to repentance (v 8 – 10)
But what do we learn about regret? And sorrow?
And whether or not these things are best consigned to last year’s patterns of behaviour?
Well, plainly, it’s appropriate to regret where our behaviour has hurt others.
See verse 8 Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it – I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while – yet now I am happy
It’s a bit back and forth, isn’t it?
First Paul has regrets, then he doesn’t have regrets.
It’s sort “Sorry. Not sorry!”
We’ve noted a couple of times in 2 Corinthians, that Paul had written another letter to the Corinthian church, between what we call 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians.
It’s sometimes called “the severe letter”, because it was a forceful condemnation of their conduct, and seemed to have dealt with the fact that the wider Corinthian church hadn’t supported Paul as he tried to ensure appropriate discipline within the church of God.
But of course, if the Corinthians rejected Paul, significant things were at stake!
It’s not like if people here said, “We don’t like Clayton,
He’s too Australian,
He can go back to the land heatwaves and bushfires as far as we’re concerned”,
That doesn’t put anyone’s faith at risk.
But it was Paul’s apostolic message that was the foundation for the church in Corinth.
It was his message they’d believed when they came to faith in Jesus.
And so, if they were now saying “We longer agree with Paul,
We don’t think he speaks God’s Word,
His approach to life is not really how God would have you live”,
If that’s what they think of Paul, they’re rejecting the message they’ve first believed in.
Whether or not Paul speaks for God,
Whether he has authority as the designated messenger from God matters.
Whatever the detail of this severe letter, it was right for Paul to send it, because the Corinthians’ faith, and assurance, and eternity, were at stake.
But even so, he says there in verse 8 that he regrets that my letter hurt you.
Even though he’s in the right theologically, Paul’s still concerned for the feelings and emotional well-being of those he’s seeking to correct.
And that’s the model for us.
Yes, we are to contend vigorously for the faith handed down to us,
We want to be absolutely intolerant of sin,
To draw very firm lines around those things we will have nothing to do with;, the idolatry and heresy we talked about in the previous chapter.
But being in the right theologically, doesn’t mean we have no regard for the feelings or well-being of those we seek to correct.
Being right is not an excuse for being obnoxious or heartless.
And if even the Apostle Paul had misgivings about his manner, and how he corrected error, it seems to me this should make us very careful in how we go about doing the same the things.
If we are those who, by personality, tend to be quite eager to call out sin and error, to point out to people the various mistakes that they’re making, do we share Paul’s sorrow at the hurt our words cause?
Not at all to say, we shouldn’t be doing those things,
No, Paul knew that people’s eternal destinies hung on this.
The question is not “is it right to say these things.”
Paul’s worry seems to be about the forcefulness of his approach, the pressure that he’d brought to bear.
He regretted the hurt,
He wished it wasn’t necessary,
He’s saddened that the strength of argument it took to convince the Corinthians to change, also caused them anguish.
Calling out sin, often strains relationships.
But there’s no suggestion for even a moment that those things don’t need to be said.
Paul regrets the hurt, but not the message.
By the time he’s writing, his regrets are gone, though.
Has he made a new year’s resolution, to live life with no regrets?
No, he no longer regrets their sorrow, because that very sorrow has led to a positive outcome.
See verse 9, yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.
Paul rejoices that the Corinthians’ hurt and anguish, what, in verse 10 he calls godly sorrow, has led them to repentance.
So even though our society tells us not to be sorry about anything, this sorrow is good and is to be embraced.
It’s the same word in Paul’s original language, behind the word hurt in verse 8, and sorrow in verse 9.
It’s the hurt and anguish they felt at Paul’s letter, that has led them to repentance.
It’s not that they were hurt by Paul’s words, and totally independently, sorrowful for their behaviour, and that their sorrow caused them to repent.
No, it’s because they were hurt by Paul’s letter that they’ve repented.
Or, to paint the picture more fully;, it was Paul’s letter, pointing out their sinfulness and their foolish behaviour, that the Spirit of God used to bring the Corinthians to repentance.
That’s why Paul doesn’t regret the hurt.
See, he’s not just saying, “well you were only hurt, for a little while, so I’m not too sad about it!”
As if it’s OK to go around hurting other people, as long as it’s not for too long!
No, Paul’s regret turns to joy, because the letter that caused such hurt, has had its desired effect, and their hurt and sorrow has led them to repentance.
This is why, as Christian brothers and sisters in the family of God here, if we see someone in our church ignoring God’s pattern for life,
Deliberately choosing behaviour that we know will lead them away from Jesus,
Or refusing to hear what God says to us in his Word, all these things the Corinthians were doing,
When we witness that in our family here, we’re not free to say, “Well, I don’t want to get involved, I don’t want to speak to them, I might upset them, they might be sad!
Yes they might, and that grief, might be the very thing that God uses to bring that person to repentance.
It’s why Paul wrote a letter through tears, chapter 2,
It’s why we’re not free to stay silent for fear of causing sorrow.
... and repentance brings joy
Because out of sorrow, can come the joy of repentance.
There is a joy, in being restored to right relationship with God.
In Psalm 32, Israel’s King David says, when I kept silent about my sin and rebellion, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.,
my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
But then he says I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity, and his whole outlook changes.
David repents, and by the end of the Psalm he’s calling on everyone to do what he’s done, and so to rejoice in the Lord, and be glad.
There is a real joy, is seeing your sin as God sees it and turning away from it in the power of the Spirit.
But it’s important we notice here,
Who has the joy?
Who is happy? verse 9,
It’s not the Corinthians, happy at their own repentance, is it?
It’s Paul’s joy.
He’s happy, because they’ve repented.
And I wonder whether we feel this?
Whether we ever feel this.
Are we happy, when we see repentance?
When other people make choices to put sin behind them?
Or have we removed ourselves so much from the lives, the spiritual lives of our brothers and sisters, that this is unknown to us?
... but not all sorrow leads to repentance
But notice, not all sorrow leads to repentance.
Look with me from halfway through verse 9, For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. 10 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
Simply being sorry,
Having regrets, doesn’t automatically lead us to the place where we turn from our sin.
This godly sorry leads to repentance, but worldly sorrow only leads to death.
So what’s the difference?! How do we make sure we have right one, because, that would seem quite important, wouldn’t it? When the alternative is death!
Well, worldly sorrow gets no further than regret.
“I wish I hadn’t done that”,
“I recognise that this was a stupid mistake”, but I don’t set out to change anything.
We’re all familiar with various high-profile examples of this. Think of the American cyclist Lance Armstrong, for example.
After being stripped of his 7 Tour de France titles for doping, Armstrong said in a TV interview last year, that he made "a mistake that led to a lot of other mistakes",
“It wasn’t legal, but I wouldn’t change a thing”
It acknowledges the wrong, but there’s no change of heart, no change of mind.
But of course it’s not just the high profile, fallen heroes, who express this kind of sorrow.
We do it.
We can regret our poor choices,
We might be sad at the consequences of our behaviour,
We feel ashamed,
We’re caught out, our sin’s been exposed,
We might feel bad at relationships that are broken because we’ve hurt other people.
And so mostly, this kind of worldly sorrow, is still, self-centred,
It’s all about me.
I’m sad, because of what I’m going to have to do, or face,
Because of what I’m going to miss out on.
And so this kind of sorrow doesn’t lead to real restoration of relationship with other people.
Why would someone welcome me back into relationship, if they’ve figured that only thing I’m sorry about is that I’m missing out on something I could otherwise get from them?
And this definitely can’t lead to restoration of relationship with God,
We’re still seeing our sin only from a worldly point of view, aren’t we?
We haven’t yet got to the point of seeing our sin as God sees it;,
As costly, offensive, serious, and cutting us off from relationship with him.
Which is why Paul says, worldly sorrow can only lead to death.
Already this year, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people talk about authenticity and integrity.
These are the measures of a person that trump every other measure or contribution a person can make in our society, at the moment.
You can be rich,
You can be powerful,
You might have been adored by millions, but if we think your integrity and authenticity don’t measure up to where they ought to be, everything else is dismissed.
And in this kind of world, the emptiness of worldly sorrow becomes plain.
For those people who strive for integrity, And maybe this is you.
But if this is someone’s goal,
They want an inner reality that reflects the outside appearance they’ve carefully curated,
But no matter how sorry they are,
No matter how much they regret their behaviour,
Regardless of how many apologies they offer,
Apart from Jesus, there’s no knowledge of God’s forgiveness,
No work of the Spirit of God in their life,
No lasting change of mind or heart.
And so we’re confronted with the reality of what I’m really like on the inside, and knowing that doesn’t measure up at all against how I want people to see me.
And that will eat you alive, from the inside.
An endless cycle of trying to change that never gets you anywhere!
worldly sorrow brings death.
Godly sorrow brings real change (v 11 – 16)
But fortunately that’s not the only type of sorrow.
Godly sorrow brings repentance, and real change, as the Corinthians’ lives have shown.
See the effect in verse 11 11 See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter
This is why Paul could say earlier on, in verse 9, you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.
This is exactly what God wanted for them.
And I think that expression you were not harmed in any way by us, is probably Paul’s way of saying, “you ended up with exactly what you needed from us. You got the best possible outcome.”
It’s a grammatical thing called a litotes, where you make your point by saying the negative of the opposite!
That sounds very confusing, but I like this, because this is how Australians speak!
Think of how conversations with Aussies tend to go:,
You ask, “How are you?”
The Australian replies, “Not bad.”
That means “good” you see?! Not bad. The negative, of the opposite!
What have you been doing?
How much was that?
How far away are we?
But it’s not just Australians! Think of the Lord’s prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray lead us not into temptation.
Now, it’s not that God will lead us into temptation unless we specifically ask him not to. It’s a way of dramatically making the point that we’re asking God to lead us away from temptation.
The negative, of the opposite.
You were not harmed in any way by us.
Paul is convinced the Corinthians got exactly the right outcome;,
There’s evidence that their sorrow is real, and has achieved what it’s supposed to achieve.
And it was quite a list in verse 11 wasn’t it?
7 different behaviours that Paul says flowed out of their grief.
eagerness to clear yourselves,
and readiness to see justice done.
That’s a fairly significant pile of evidence, that their sorrow was real and that it led to real repentance.
This is not the behaviour of people who think sin doesn’t matter.
This is what happens when people come to the horrific realisation that their sin has grieved God.
And certainly by the time we get into the second half of that list,
readiness to see justice done, it’s all outward looking, isn’t it?
An example of the evidence of joyful repentance (v 5 – 7)
And that was made especially evident when Titus came to Paul in Macedonia with news from the Corinthians.
We skipped verses 5 to 7 before. Look at them now with me.
5 For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. 6 But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, 7 and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.
Their relationship with Titus, and through him, Paul, is a clear example of joyful repentance.
Imagine Titus arriving in Macedonia, finding Paul, and unloading to him, all the news from the church of Corinth.
How grieved they were by his letter,
But how that grief and sorrow had led to repentance;
They’d become grieved at sin;, their own sin, and the sin they’d tolerated amongst themselves,
They’d taken action against the man whose sin and offence led to Paul writing the severe letter in the first place, that’s the man who’s mentioned down in verse 12,
So even though I wrote to you, it was neither on account of the one who did the wrong nor on account of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are. 13 By all this we are encouraged.
And so now they have that longing, and concern, and a readiness to see justice done, and all those other things in that list, Such that when Paul hears about this, he is hugely comforted, and his joy, verse 7, was greater than ever.
This is the, worked example, of everything else in this chapter.
Remember there was a breakdown in relationship,
Now this is what reconciliation looks like.
There was sorrow at sin, but that led to deep inward change, and now results in God’s apostle to the Gentiles being comforted in, well, it seems like an incredibly traumatic time, doesn’t it? Verse 5 we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn - conflicts on the outside, fears within.
But how does God bring comfort?
We often pray that God will comfort people, don’t we?
Often that seems like the one thing we know what to pray for, when someone’s going through a difficult time;,
“Dear God, please comfort them.”
But how does verse 6 tell us that God comforts the downcast?
Well, at least on this occasion, he used another Christian.
God comforted us by the coming of Titus.
And I suspect that God hasn’t changed his methods particularly, so the way God chose to comfort Paul,
Is probably one of the ways God will chose to bring comfort to people today,
Which is to say, if you pray that God will comfort someone in the midst of their hardship, you may well be the answer to your own prayer!
And since God tells us here in his Word that this is how he brings comfort to people, after you’ve prayed, “dear God please comfort this person”, don’t sit around waiting for God to tell you “Go and bring them comfort!”
Just do it!
This is how God works!
And in this particular case notice that the comfort Paul receives by Titus’ coming is all about the lasting change in the Corinthians’ behaviour, their deep sorrow, verse 7.
This brought comfort to Titus when he first saw evidence of it, and again in the last couple of verses, like verse 13, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you.
And then when Paul found out from Titus about the repentance and real change produced in them by the Holy Spirit because of their sorrow, he too was comforted.
And yet, according to verse 5, Paul’s got a whole range of troubles, and it seems that probably only the last one, fears within could have anything remotely to do with the Corinthians;,
Probably he fears what happens if they don’t repent,
If they reject Paul, and therefore the gospel be brought.
All the other troubles are caused by people in Macedonia;,
Probably the violence and accusations in Thessalonica,
People in Philippi trying to undermine Paul and his ministry, all kinds of things weighing on him.
The good news from Titus about the repentance and change in the Corinthians speaks to one tiny section of the troubles Paul is facing, and still he can say, “I was comforted, so that my joy was greater than ever.”
How can one little slice of good news have such an overwhelming effect when it’s unrelated to whole expanses of life that are causing grief?
Well, I think there’s only one possible reason,
And that’s that the godly sorrow, and repentance, and real change in the lives of the Corinthians, is proof, a reminder to Paul, of the power of the gospel of Jesus to bring lasting change, and the effectiveness of the Spirit of God at his work.
Even though Paul looks out his window and sees other Christian ministers campaigning against him,
And he looks at the cuts and bruises from where he got beaten up and dragged through the crowd in a riot,
But he’s reminded;, the gospel of Jesus Christ changes people,
The Spirit of God does his work,
And that’s the thing he needs to know in the midst of all these other hardships.
The gospel is powerful and effective;, the lives of the Corinthians were proof of that,
And when you’re convinced of that, it doesn’t matter that other Christian leaders try and shut down your ministry,
You can press on even when people want you dead.
You can persevere when your ministry seems week and insignificant because it’s the Word and Spirit of God that bring change in people’s lives.
Paul can say my joy was greater than ever.
Isn’t that remarkable?
And it means that when you pray and ask God to comfort someone, and he chooses to use you to answer that prayer,
Your task is not to change everything about their situation, though, if you’re able to, of course, you could do that!
No, your task, Christian person, is in the midst of hardship, to bring the comfort of the power of the gospel, and the work of the Spirit of God,
Your friend needs your conviction that the gospel of Jesus is powerful and effective,
The reminder that no matter what happens to them, the life-changing impact of the gospel, and the work of the Spirit of God is what they need more than anything else, and if they’re a Christian, it’s what they already have.
I’m not saying the other issues of life are not important. These things Paul was facing were a big deal and they had a big impact on him, and yet for Paul, the reminder that the Spirit has worked once again in people’s lives, gives him the greatest joy he’s ever known.
I’m going to pray, and ask that we might know that same joy.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the joy of repentance, knowing we have been brought into right relationship with you.
We pray that your Spirit might be continually at work in us, that we might see our sin as you see it,
Costly, horrific, dangerous to us, and yet also paid for by Jesus.
Use us, we pray, to bring comfort to brothers and sisters, through our conviction end experience of the power of the gospel of Jesus and the work of your Spirit.
We pray together we might know, the joy of repentance. Amen.