Battling the Unbelief of Regret


We’re in a series of messages called “Battling Unbelief.” Let me give you the thesis of the series, namely that all sin that we commit is owing to unbelief in our hearts. The taproot of sinning is unbelief in the promises of God. Or to put it positively, all righteousness comes from a heart of faith, a heart of trusting in the promises of God. Wherever sins crop up, there is lurking, growing, incipient or large-scale unbelief in God. Now, perhaps a text to provide a foundation for that assumption.

The Taproot of Sin and Righteousness

Hebrews 3:12 says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” Notice the connection between unbelief and evil, an evil heart of unbelief. The root of the evil is the unbelief.

Now for the other side, namely that righteousness or good deeds come from faith. I take a little phrase from 1 Thessalonians 1:3: “Remembering before our God and Father your work of faith.” Now that little phrase “work of faith” suggests to me that the Thessalonians had begun to perform works, acts of obedience, and he calls them faith. They’re growing out of faith. The same little phrases is used in 2 Thessalonians 1:11: “To this end, we always pray for you that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith.”

So our goal in our behavioral life as Christians should be to perform works of faith, to trust the promises of God, so that we are liberated from inclinations to sin and are empowered by inclinations toward righteousness.

The Fight for Faith

The implication of these two premises is that life is war. Or to use the phrase of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7: life is a “fight of faith. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith. I have run the race.” Fought the good fight and kept the faith are virtually synonymous. What fight has he fought? He fought the fight to keep the faith. Or as he says in 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called.”

I am commending to you to always be good warriors in the fight of faith because if you win the fight of faith, then out of that taproot of faith will come righteousness, and if you lose the fight of faith, out of that tap root of unbelief will come sin.

What Is Regret?

“Take heed lest there be in you an evil heart of unbelief” (Hebrews 3:12). What would that evil heart look like? I came up with a list of about eleven states of unbelief that have to be fought against and conquered by faith, and tonight’s state of the human heart is regret.

“The taproot of sinning is unbelief in the promises of God.”

Regret is a state of the heart that can ruin your life, can cause you to make a shipwreck of faith, and bail out of the Christian experience. You just give up because of so many past things that you feel regret for. There has to be a way biblically to fight this thing called regret. But wait, there’s a good place for regret, isn’t there? It isn’t always owing to unbelief, is it?” Yes, there is good regret. There’s godly regret.

For even if I made you grieve 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 a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:8–10)

Godly Regret Versus Worldly Regret

Godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret in the end, but worldly grief produces death. The Corinthian church was at fault. Paul stung them with an indicting letter, and at first, he heard that they were hurt by this letter and it grieved him. Then he got word that the hurt had gone beyond hurt to repentance and beyond repentance to salvation in life. They were making amends.

Then Paul says it could have been different. There is another kind of grief that might’ve been produced — worldly grief. This grief could have produced death. This grief is being so overwhelmed by the significance of something in the past that you never make recovery, or you become embittered or depressed or think there is no future. Satan begins to lie and to tell you there’s no way that you will recoup in the future from that shortfall. That’s the grief according to the world, not the grief according to God.

Peter Versus Judas

Let me use two biblical illustrations. There was a disciple, one of the twelve, who experienced the one kind of regret and there was a disciple who experienced the other kind, and they both did the same thing wrong.

“Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders” (Matthew 27:3). When Judas, Jesus’s betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented. Now, that could be very misleading because repentance is a glorious and godly thing that leads to life. However, the Greek used here is not the same repentance. The Greek here means he felt regret. He felt regret and brought back the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.”

Now that’s a good thing to say, but his regret did not accord with God. Why? What was missing? What was the difference between Peter and Judas? They really did the same thing. There wasn’t that much difference between betraying him and denying. Peter denied him saying, “I don’t know him. You take him. I’m going out. I’m not part of this.” All Judas said was, “He’s out in the garden.”

The Look of Love

Peter, when the Lord looked at him and stung him with this look of love, wept, but he didn’t kill himself. Judas killed himself. Why? I think the answer is faith. You remember what Jesus said in Luke 22:32. He said, “Peter, Satan has demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith fail not.” His faith failed some, but it didn’t fail totally. Jesus looked at Peter, and he broke him, and as Peter wept, faith returned.

If Judas had wept, had gone to the rooms with the disciples, had been a broken man and believed in the kind of Jesus that Jesus really was, Jesus would’ve looked at Judas too that way. But Judas didn’t believe. He gave up on Jesus.

So, we have two kinds of regret. Regret according to God and regret according to the world.

What Characterizes Godly Regret?

Regret according to God leads to repentance and life and joy and newness, not death. What marks or characterizes it?

1. It must be felt.

If you sin, you must feel regret.

“All righteousness comes from a heart of faith, a heart of trusting in the promises of God.”

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
   through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
   my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to you,
   and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
   and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:3–5)

If you hold onto your sin, if you don’t admit it or acknowledge it or feel it, your bones are going to rot. So the first step in a godly regret is to have it. Feel it. Admit it. Don’t hide it. Say it right up to God’s face.

2. We need to make right as much as possible.

Zacchaeus comes to my mind as a person who repented when he was pricked by the Lord’s love and felt guilty for being such a greedy, covetous tax collector. He started making amends and restored fourfold and gave half of his goods to the poor.

Let me give you an illustration from my own life. I once heard a speaker who I thought badly misused a text and made it say something terribly wrong. I was so upset about this. I came home and I shot off a long exegetical letter to The Standard, our magazine, and they published it. This speaker got very angry and told the editor, “This is not something that should have been put in The Standard. He should’ve come to me first.” Now, I lived with that for three years. It gnawed away at me. Writing a letter would have been the brotherly thing to do.

The speaker happens to be the president of Western Baptist Seminary, and I was invited to Western Baptist Seminary to speak last February. There was a theology professor there that took me aside and said the president was still really mad at me. Really? After three years? When I was leading an interview with the president, I took him aside said, “You know, if I had it to do over again, I would write you that letter instead of putting it in The Standard. And I’m sorry that I didn’t do that.” He almost melted! The whole atmosphere totally changed as the brotherliness returned! And we had a great interview with the students, and the rest of my time there was terrific.

The same thing happened at Santa Clara. Worst message I ever heard in my life. I went back to my hotel room, got up my computer and banged out six pages of criticism. And I mailed it to the speaker flat out, and he called me on the telephone from San Diego. It was a great conversation! This is the way it ought to be done.

The point is: seek to make things right face to face if you’ve got a regret inside of you because of something you’ve done, someone you’ve hurt or let down, or someone you’ve sinned against.

Getting Victory Over Regret

There are two big issues that faith must lay hold of in order to get victory over regret. One is the forgiveness of God, and the other is the sovereign ability of God to turn it for good.

1. God’s Forgiveness

In 1 Samuel 12:19–25, the people ask for a king. These Israelites want to be like all the nations of the world. Then Samuel comes along and says, “That was evil. I’ll do what you said because God told me to go ahead with this, but that was evil.” The Israelites are so frightened. They say, “Samuel pray for us”, and Samuel says, “The Lord will not cast away his people for his great name’s sake. Only fear the Lord, walk in his statutes, and you will prosper.”

Now that’s the kind of text that shows God is slow to anger, abounding in mercy, full of loving kindness and compassion, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. We need stories like that and texts like that. This is the Sword of the Spirit with which you fight against the unbelief of your heart that says, “I’ve sinned too badly. I can’t be forgiven. I mean I blew it so badly.”

Let me show you two of the psalms that I go back to again and again. I use them in counseling with people who feel that the kind of thing they’ve done or the aggravated circumstances or the repeated nature of the sin makes them beyond hope. Psalm 106 and 107 are tailor made and written by God himself for people like that.

Both we and our fathers have sinned;
   we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness.
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
   did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
   but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
   that he might make known his mighty power. (Psalm 106:6–8)

“There is no past act that we’ve ever done that God can’t weave into a good and beautiful tapestry.”

Psalm 107 is even more to the point because three times in this long psalm, people are pictured in hopeless guilt, affliction, bondage and sickness, and God redeems them.

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
   prisoners in affliction and in irons.
For they had rebelled against the words of God
   and spurned the counsel of the most high.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor.
   They fell down with none to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble
   and he delivered them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and gloom,
   broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
   for his wonderful works to the sons of men. (Psalm 107:10–15)

I really believe if Judas had done that, he would have been saved.

The point here is that there is ample evidence in the word of God for forgiveness. There are hundreds of texts, hundreds of promises, hundreds of stories that say God will receive the truly penitent person and forgive you and wipe away all your sin.

2. God’s Ability to Make Good

Now, there’s one more concern. We feel like the mistakes we’ve made are going to botch our lives. We think, “I’ve lost all this money in the stock market!” or, “I’ve got all these people mad at me!” or, “I made a fool of myself in public!” or, “My future is gone!” Romans 8:28, 37 are the bulwarks of our faith.

God works all things together for good, for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? As it is written, for your sake, we are being killed all day long. We are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors. (Romans 8:37)

I go back to the sovereignty of God again and again, saying, “There is nothing. There are no circumstances. There is no past or present act that I’ve ever done that God can’t weave into a tapestry that is good and beautiful.” That’s the kind of God we have.

You must fight the unbelief that says, “It’s all over. My future is unredeemable and I might as well just go ahead and live for the Devil because I’ve blown it so bad.” That’s just unbelief talking, and therefore, that’s the root of regret that accords with the world and leads to death. I commend to you the Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Take it up and read those great promises of the sovereignty of God. He can turn all things for our good, even the things that we committed through sin, and for his glory.