The Good End of Godly Regret

For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it), for I see that the letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.

This is the last Sunday of 1984. As we look back over the year, every one of us who is honest has something to regret. Even though we can count our many blessings and name them one by one, the list of our blunders is also a long one. Resolutions unkept; bad habits unbroken; anger unconquered; Scripture unmemorized; letters unwritten; opportunities not taken. The higher your goals and the keener your conscience, the greater your regret. It can be a very depressing time of year.

So I want to talk about regret this morning. The text is 2 Corinthians 7:8–10 and the doctrine I want to unfold is this: the good end of godly regret is salvation. Before we try to unpack this statement, let's get the situation clear.

The Situation at Corinth

Paul had written a letter to the church at Corinth. The letter was a response to a situation caused by some opponent that had swung the allegiance of the church away from Paul. Notice verse 12: "So although I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong, nor on account of the one who suffered the wrong (perhaps Paul himself), but in order that your zeal for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God." In other words, somebody had done a wrong to someone else (maybe Paul) and had somehow dampened the zeal of the Corinthians for Paul. Perhaps his authority or his character had been maligned, and the church had fallen for this and lost their affection and longing and respect for Paul. Paul writes a stern letter to try to point out the wrong and stir up their support once again.

He probably sends it with Titus from somewhere in Asia and promptly sinks into depression that they might be alienated by his letter and his ministry with them be ruined for ever. According to 2:13 he had hoped to meet Titus with news of their response in Troas. But Titus didn't show. Then 7:5 says Paul crossed on over into Macedonia struggling all the way with "external conflicts and internal fears."

Finally, Titus comes with news from Corinth in verses 6 and 7. The letter has worked. Their zeal for Paul was restored. Then Paul writes these rich words from which we take our message today (vv. 8–10):

For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it), for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.

The Good End of Godly Regret

So the teaching that I want to unfold is this: The good end of godly regret is salvation. To unfold this truth I'll make three points:

  1. Godly regret is good.
  2. Godly regret produces repentance.
  3. Godly regret leads to salvation.

Defining "Godly Regret"

But before we look at these three points we need to define "godly regret." The term is used twice. Once in verse 9 and once in verse 10. "For you felt a godly regret so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death." The grief in view is grief over the way they had fallen for Paul's opponent and mistreated Paul. It's the grief of regret over past sin. It's called godly, or literally, "according to God." Notice in verse 10 that the opposite of godly grief is not feeling no grief but feeling "worldly grief."

Two Ways to Distinguish Godly Grief from Worldly Grief

This is crucial to notice. The opposite of godly remorse is not always remorselessness. The powers of darkness in the world are much more subtle than that. There is a grief, a regret, a remorse which is "of the world" and not "according to God." You can feel sorry for something in a worldly way which leads to death. So what we need to do is distinguish godly regret from worldly regret.

I would suggest two ways to distinguish them.

  1. Worldly regret is when you feel sorry for something you did because it starts to backfire on you and leads to humiliation or punishment. It's the reflex of a proud or fearful ego. Pride will always regret making a fool of itself. And fear will always regret acts that jeopardize comfort and safety. So feeling sorry for something we have done is in itself no sign of virtue. But godly regret is the reflex of a conscience that has wounded God's ego, not its own. Godly regret grieves that God's name has come into disrepute. The focus of godly regret is God.
  2. A second way to distinguish worldly regret from godly regret is that godly regret is owing to God's Word putting its finger on sin in our lives. Worldly regret is owing not to God's Word but to the attitudes of men whose praise we don't want to lose. We can feel extremely sorry for something we have done if we detect that the people around us think it is stupid or silly or reprehensible. The word of man not God becomes the criterion of guilt.

So in summary, godly grief, or godly regret, is the uncomfortable feeling of guilt when the Word of God shows you that what you've done is sin and thus has brought reproach on God's name. (Of course, if other people have been hurt by your sin, godly regret will want to redress the wrong and so remove the reproach upon God's honor.) Godly regret is the regret of a God-saturated heart, not a world-saturated heart.

Three Points About Godly Regret

Now back to the main doctrine of this text: The good end of godly regret is salvation. Three brief points under this head:

1. Godly Regret Is Good

Paul said at the end of verse 7 and the beginning of verse 9 that he rejoiced over what the Corinthians had experienced. It was a good thing. But it's like saying pain is good. We don't really mean that pain all by itself is a good thing. We mean that in a world where you can bleed to death, it's good to feel pain when you are cut. It's good to feel pain before the tumor is inoperable. It's good to feel pain before the infection leads to gangrene.

False Guilt Exists

Godly regret is to sin what pain is to disease. A sensitive conscience is a gift of God, just like nerve endings that recoil from scalding water. Yet it is amazing how many people today teach and counsel that guilt feelings are unhealthy and harmful. Of course, there are guilt feelings that are unhealthy, just like there is pain that is psychosomatic. It does not signal any real disease. There is such a thing as false guilt. In fact, I think Paul was experiencing it in verse 8. "Even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it)." Paul had tortured himself for weeks it seems with guilt that perhaps he shouldn't have sent that letter. But all for naught. His letter was of God. His regret was unfounded, unnecessary. There was no disease. It was a false alarm. We ought to try to overcome all such false guilt.

Real Guilt Is a Good Symptom

But there are those today whose opposition to guilt is much deeper than that. It is a rejection of sin and its horrendous proportions in relation to God. Real guilt, real regret, is good and should not be avoided. Frontier doctors used to use whiskey to dull the pain before an amputation. That's OK. The tragedy is when people try to use whiskey or other artificial means to dull the moral pain of regret and fear. Physical pain and moral regret always point beyond themselves to other problems to be solved. The pain and regret are only symptoms and they are good for that purpose. Instead of running from them, we should face them head on and admit the disease and seek a deeper cure in Christ.

Which leads to the second point:

2. Godly Regret Produces Repentance

Verse 9 says that Paul's joy was not based merely on the guilt that the Corinthians had felt, but on the repentance it produced. "I rejoice not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting." Then verse 10 states the general truth: "Godly grief produces repentance." The first thing to notice is that repentance is not identical with grief or regret over sin. It is the result of these emotions. To feel sorry, to feel grief or guilt or regret over a past sin is not the same as repenting. Repentance is the change of attitude or behavior that results from the feeling of remorse over the sin. I think it would be wise to say that godly regret is the first step of repentance. And repentance follows and completes the change of heart.

The Test of Godly Regret

So the test of godly regret is repentance. The test of whether our grief is of God or of the world is whether it produces change. Repentance is turning away from and renouncing one way and going in another. In verses 7 and 11 Paul describes the change he heard about in the Corinthians. Their indifference to his presence had turned to longing. Their rejection of his authority had turned to zeal. Their gullibility had turned to indignation against the opponent. In other words, godly regret is a very fruitful emotion. It does not immobilize you in the pits of depression. It is temporary and effective.

Notice that last phrase in verse 8: "I see that the letter grieved you, though only for a while." If the feeling of regret and guilt holds you in its grip week in and week out long after the sin is past and you have turned from it, then it is not the grief of God but of the world. It is Satan's attack. If he cannot keep you from regretting your sin, then he will do his best to keep you from enjoying your forgiveness. If he fails in his attempt to keep you from grieving over sin, he will do his best to turn your godly grief into an ongoing bondage of unwarranted guilt. And if there is any work of the devil that the Son of God died to destroy, it is this one, namely, robbing God's children of the enjoyment of their forgiveness. Godly grief throws us to the foot of the cross. The dying Christ slays the dragon of guilt and frees us to turn boldly away from sin, rebuke the defeated devil, and walk joyfully with God in the narrow path of righteousness that leads to life.

Which leads us to the final point:

3. Godly Regret Leads to Salvation

Verse 10: "Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death." This helps us understand the depth of Paul's struggles back in verse 5: "fightings without, fears within." What did he fear? He feared that his work might have been in vain and that some of the professing believers in Corinth would be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and follow the way that leads to death not salvation.

He says in 11:2–3, "I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ." So at the end of the book (13:5) he calls them to test themselves: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!"

The Test of Genuine Faith

What is the test? What is the evidence that their faith is genuine? The answer of 7:10 would be: there is a path that leads to salvation and one that leads to death. The way to test your faith is to test which path you are on. The path that leads to salvation is not the path of sinless perfection (just as we saw last week, that's not the test). It is the path of godly grief and genuine repentance. "Godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation." Are we grieved by our sin with a godly grief and do we turn from it—that is the test of our faith and the evidence that Christ is in us.

  1. Godly regret is good.
  2. Godly regret produces repentance.
  3. And, therefore, godly regret leads to salvation.

Two Practical Applications

I close with two obvious practical applications of this truth:

  1. Be willing to cause godly regret.
  2. Be willing to accept godly regret.
1. Be Willing to Cause Godly Regret

When I say, Cause godly regret, I don't mean cause your brother or sister to sin. I mean, if necessary, help them recognize their sin. This is never easy. We can take heart that Paul did not find it easy. When he wrote his letter, it caused him tremendous discomfort until he knew the Corinthians had taken it well. We risk being rejected and criticized when we care about someone enough to put our finger on their sin. But we should follow Paul's example and do it anyway. It could be that their salvation is at stake and you are God's way of bringing them back to the path of repentance that leads to life.

2. Be Willing to Accept Godly Regret

We should be willing to accept godly regret. Put yourself in the place of the Corinthians. You get a stern letter from someone. It is a rebuke and a call to repentance and an expression of love. How would you respond? Would you bristle in self-defense and start to point out the other person's flaws to conceal your own? Or would you be like the Corinthians and let yourself be moved to godly grief and repentance?

On these two points let's be like Paul and the Corinthians. Let's be willing, if necessary, to cause godly regret like Paul did, and let's be willing to accept it like they did. Because, the truth stands sure: the good end of godly regret is salvation.

Thumb author john piper

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.

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